Museums have no borders,
they have a network

All news

September 27, 2021

ICOM VoicesTransatlantic Museum Conversations: Before, During and After Pandemic Times

Lorenz Kampschulte et al.

Head of Education, Deutsches Museum, Munich

Lorenz Kampschulte, Head of Education, Deutsches Museum, Munich
Frank Usbeck, Curator for the American Collections, State Art Collections Dresden / State Ethnographic Collections Saxony, Leipzig
Lorena Bradford, Manager of Accessible Programs, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Katja Zelljadt, International Outreach, Leibniz Research Museums, Berlin

Keywords: Professional development; Transatlantic exchange; Collaboration; Covid-19 pandemic.

First contact

In November 2019, Fulbright Germany, the Leibniz Association and the Smithsonian Institution held an in-person seminar titled ‘Museums as Spaces for Social Discourse and Learning’ in Washington, DC. The four-day event brought together 26 German and American curators, educators and professionals working in museums, historic sites and other cultural institutions. Participants explored museums as spaces for social discourse and learning – and, by extension, as institutions that are vital for democracies. The seminar aimed to deepen international understanding while simultaneously supporting hands-on professional development, the exchange of best practices and lasting professional connections between an influential group of peers in the museum field.

Transatlantic Seminar for Museum Curators and Educators: ‘Museums as Spaces for Social Discourse and Learning’ © Mike Maguire

Deepening our connection

Following the seminar, we jointly authored and produced a special issue of the Journal of Museum Education, published in March 2021. Working in several transatlantic teams, we explored shared issues from various national perspectives. Topics ranged from improving transatlantic understanding (with the creation of a ‘dictionary’ of museum terms that have differing, nuanced meanings in both countries) to the role of diversity, equity, access and inclusion in exhibition designs, public programmes and the practice of repatriation. We also addressed the question of why people do not visit museums in both the US and Germany, and reflected on how cooperation and collaboration between museums and other institutions, such as universities, NGOs, or companies, can effect change in museums. The aim of the special issue was not only to share some of our discussions with a broader public, but also to learn from practical examples.

Supporting one another and our communities

The benefit of our collaboration and the advantage of our practice-focused approach became clear when the participants of the 2019 seminar met for the virtual ‘Transatlantic Seminar for Museum Curators and Educators – Museums in Post-pandemic Times’ in April 2021. We discussed how museums have been impacted by the pandemic, examined the societal gaps revealed in the last 18 months, and considered potential courses of action. Alessandro Gaballo, Communications and PR Coordinator at ICOM, presented a synopsis of results from an ICOM survey carried out in autumn 2020 as part of the ‘Follow-up survey: the impact of COVID-19 on the museum sector’ (2020). The survey results confirmed the ways in which economic, societal and financial differences have affected museums in a transatlantic context. Sources of funding significantly shape the degree to which individual museums have been impacted and where they see short-term and longer-term critical challenges

The diversity of our working group was our greatest asset, as our individual perspectives highlighted globally relevant issues, e.g. the question of how to support young activists, which we considered necessary in building networks and serving our communities. In addition, our conversations generated new ideas and opportunities for mutual support. This ongoing, international exchange allowed us to compare transatlantic government structures, cultural policies, funding schemes, job opportunities and visitor populations in the museum sphere. The group also drew insights from sharing experiences between large and small institutions, public and private funding sources, varying job responsibilities (e.g. curatorial, education, programming) and cross-disciplinary learning (e.g. science, art, history and anthropology museums).

Creating relevance during times of social change

In the context of pandemic-related social and political pressures, our participant group agreed that museums can be described as crucial ‘socio-cultural care-givers.’ Many museums are combining their resources, skills, infrastructure and commitment to serve struggling communities in times of crisis, be it by collecting, breaking down and transmitting critical knowledge, providing safe spaces for community discussions (on-site and virtually), or by offering education and entertainment. Online offerings have the potential to provide stress relief during challenging times.

Museums’ many and varied responses to this unprecedented situation provide a new understanding of the future of museums. Even before the pandemic, our respective institutions had begun exploring topics as diverse as climate change, environmentalism, decolonisation, racism, urban development, and gentrification – both within their organisations and their communities. This new situation has propelled this exploration forward.

Programming during the pandemic

Despite pandemic restrictions, our museums have offered creative, innovative programmes and initiatives to engage visitors while connecting them with each other and with our collections. These initiatives transformed existing programmes into virtual spaces and online platforms with new digital tools, but some socially distanced on-site events were also held. The following are examples of such initiatives:

These ‘programmes-made-for-desperate-times’ have revolutionised the museum education field. Linking on-site with online offerings allows museums to engage diverse audiences. Online formats allow us to connect with people who would otherwise not be able to attend an on-site event because they live too far away, do not have time to visit, or they face language barriers or disabilities. In addition, virtual activities provide new employment opportunities for virtual educators from a wider range of backgrounds, locations and abilities. In short, museums can reach a broader community in this way, increasing their relevance to society.

Another face-to-face meeting, this time in Germany, is planned as soon as financial resources and the pandemic situation allow. In the meantime, a Stammtisch (regulars’ table) is organised by the group every two months to keep the discussion going, follow new trends and promote the transatlantic exchange of ideas.

References and resources

Fulbright Germany. 2019. ‘Museums as Spaces for Social Discourse and Learning. Transatlantic Seminar for Museum Curators and Educators, November 2019’, Fulbright Germany. Available at:

ICOM. 2020. ‘Follow-up survey: the impact of COVID-19 on the museum sector’. Available at:

Junk Hatcher, S. and Kampshulte, L. 2021. ‘Shared Challenges? Transatlantic Perspectives on Museums in the US and Germany’, Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 46, n°1. Available at: c