Planning exhibitions in the time of COVID, by Rachel Campbell

Ghost Signs of Glasgow is planning to  launch an online exhibition very soon. An exhibition was always an end goal for the project, but if you had told us back in 2019 we would be planning for this in the midst of a pandemic I’m not sure any of us would have believed you. I work in curatorial and interpretation in the museum sector and have done exhibitions for several large heritage institutions before. But never has there been so much uncertainty. 

Almost immediately the impact of COVID could be felt across the heritage sector. Museums across the globe were closed and galleries fell silent. Historic Environment Scotland ran two surveys in 2020 on the ways in which museums and galleries in Scotland were affected by the crisis. Published in July, the survey recorded that 70% of respondents recorded a loss of revenue and 65% cancelled all events for 2020. The ARTFUND COVID Impact Report recorded similar results. Out of 427 museums and galleries surveyed between April and May 98% had cancelled exhibitions and events. 

Photograph of the Kelvingrove art museum, a red sandstone Victorian building
Kelvingrove Museum

Monetary losses have been even greater, with many heritage charities and institutions having to restructure, resulting in redundancies across the board. The Museum Association Redundancy Tracker has recorded almost 4,000 job losses so far, with many more people still at risk. Even the biggest names in the sector haven’t been safe.

The National Trust for Scotland lost around 200 staff in September 2020, despite a £3.2 million government bailout. The story is similar across the rest of the UK, with thousands of job losses at the National Trust, V&A, and Historic Royal Palaces. Only time will tell if our museums and galleries will be able to reopen this year, or if we face another year of cancelled events. 

In some ways the Ghost Signs project was lucky. Prior to lockdown we were able to launch our maps so you can hunt down the historic signs in your area, and these were also made available to download online. Much of our research into the existing Ghost Signs had also been completed. Our extensive archive gave us plenty of scope to create this exhibition around some of our favourite interesting and eye-catching signs. 

 We began discussing our plans for the exhibition back in October 2020. Despite the threat of another lockdown looming over us, we decided to press on with our plans to hold a physical one; in some ways we still had retained that sense of hope that it would be ‘better in a few weeks’. But it was crucial that we had the backup of a digital exhibition should this have to be postponed.

Tenement House (National Trust for Scotland)

Digital exhibitions have their advantages. In September 2020 Ghost Signs led a successful online conference for Doors Open Day alongside similar projects in London, Birmingham and Dublin. Going digital allowed us to connect with Ghost Signs hunters across the two countries in a way that might not have been achieved if the event was an in-person event. Hopefully, our digital exhibition will be able to provide something of a similar chance to connect with our city’s rich heritage without having to leave the house.

With vaccines being rolled out, there does seem to be an end in sight to the COVID crisis. We hope that the upcoming digital exhibition will be the first event of many this year as we look forward to another year of Ghost Signs hunting.

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