Contemplating digital connection and care in the context of Covid-19 during fieldwork

By Cassandra Kist (University of Glasgow)

About two months ago I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in Dundee to interview staff for my research on museum social media use and its relation to socially engaged museum practices. There are two pieces of this visit that although I didn’t foresee at the time, speaks to our current pandemic situation. We delved into discussing how museums can care for their audiences and engage them through digital media. When touching upon challenging topics such as homelessness or even difficult heritage such as the Transatlantic slave trade, there was a tension here between staff perceptions of what should be restricted to the building versus what can be offered for engagement in an online social space. What constitutes the difference between using online media for the museum’s dirty secrets compared to an opportunity for meaningful engagement? Now that museum venues are closed, we may ask if these tensions will begin to ease. How will institutions begin to change their perception of and the infrastructures associated with online engagement? This could be a turning point for many GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). However, in times of crisis sometimes institutions further restrict their control. Due to the current anxiety inducing circumstances, will these tensions in perception of what is appropriate or inappropriate for online engagement escalate?

We’ve witnessed a recent flurry of online activity from GLAMs offering engagement for their audiences, many of these being fun and silly, a way to potentially distract from the current situation. Other institutions are finding creative ways to combat loneliness and connect their visitors to each other, to memory institutions and to heritage, see our recent  POEM Twitter posts for a few examples. There are also increasing instances of museums connecting to the memory practices of users by calling for Covid diaries, user pictures, objects and banners and to do so, even forming online collaborations. For instance, check out the Museum of European Culture #CollectingCorona on Facebook, the slack channel for collaboration set up by the Wellcome Library and Museums Association and the recent Museum Association statement on ethical Covid collecting. But what will happen post-Covid? Will these creative uses and the energy invested into digital engagement and cross- institutional collaboration remain?

There is something else during my visit to the V&A that I keep reflecting on, something that made me feel immensely upset and yet, now in these new circumstances I feel compelled to reconsider my reaction. When visiting the ‘I am Robot’ exhibit I came across a robot arm like invention, intended to offer patients care through touch. The text read that it was intended for patients in isolation or for those in palliative care without family. Whether a hand to hold or an arm or a leg rub, touch is extremely valuable, and I thought somewhat enraged, how could someone, maybe anyone, not offer such minimal yet maximal care? For me this machine exemplified an absence and ironically, a lack of care. With many people in isolation and relatives and friends having to die alone, I am called to reconsider the technical touch and if this is something that signifies a different kind of presence, rather than an absolute absence. I think this instance of rethinking the value in digital and technology in relation to connection and care, will be one of many that not only individuals will face, but also GLAM institutions. Covid-19, will change our perception of connection and the value attributed to digital and technological methods of connection. How will digital and technological infrastructures change during this crisis and how will it change us – our perceptions of connection and our memory making practices?

The POEM network as focused on inclusive, participatory memory practices in digital media ecologies is trying to rise up to these challenging questions while thinking of innovative ways to continue our fieldwork and research through digital means. We must ask what is lost through these methods and what is also gained? To some extent we may see an emphasis placed on collaboration and collaborative resources. For instance, this document on digital research methodologies and researchers coming together to pursue Covid related questions in transnational networks. Our recent Knowledge Hub was held through Zoom and while we missed the presence of each other, the banter and the ability to gauge when or when not to speak, there was also something personal about bringing each other into our homes and offices. That is to say, intimate connections through digital and the ability to create, discuss and debate will rely on our ability and investment into these new ways of working and collaborating. How will our use of these applications change, and how will it, in turn alter our future envisioning?

These questions and this reflection I must acknowledge comes from a place of privilege. What about those unable to access wifi and digital technologies? The pandemic is beginning to make class and socio-economic differences very apparent across the globe. How will governments rise up to meet these challenges? And importantly for the GLAM sector how can we support communities who are the most vulnerable?

Cassandra Kist is a PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow (UK) and her research interests are memory practices, Musesocial, difficult heritage and anthropology. She can be reached via Follow her on Twitter @kist_c


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Concepts, strategies and media infrastructures for envisioning socially inclusive potential futures of European Societies through culture.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764859.