May 14, 2021

With Coronavirus: “Kaiso” (Open and Sparse), and Future of Museums

Kazuto ATAKA
Professor, Keio University, Faculty of Environment and Information Studies; CSO, Yahoo Japan Corporation

The original article was published in Museum Studies (vol.55 No.11, November 2020), Japanese Association of Museums.

A museum is a mysterious place. In its apparent quietude, you suddenly feel the presence of a person who should not be there anymore: such an experience is not so rare. It houses a peculiar space where you can go beyond time and space and get in touch with authentic artifacts that you cannot see in everyday life. It is also a place where you explore exhibited objects far more deeply, and gain mind power and inspiration.

It is reported that those museums, which play such a special role in society, are in serious difficulty due to the situation provoked by the novel coronavirus. Since I have been asked to provide some input and suggestions, I would humbly like to present my opinion.

First of all, this article will clarify the directions of necessary changes in the social system suited to the current situation. Next, I will discuss what kind of changes museums need to put in place, and finally, I would like to consider the value of museums in the current era and how to make best use of them.

1. Background and meaning of the situation

Eight months have passed since COVID-19 has arrived in Japan. If its mortality is by far lower than infectious diseases that attacked humans in the past, such as the plague, variola, tuberculosis and AIDS, it is probably among the worst in terms of economic damage. Major countries put severe lockdowns in place and, except for China, their economies shrank during the period from April to June often by more than 20%.

As with other infectious diseases, development of specific treatments or acquisition of herd immunity are needed to effectively stop its spread. The latter can be acquired through natural infection or vaccination. However, vaccines are unlikely to appear before early next year. Therefore, under any scenario, it will probably take more than a year for the pandemic to end right around the world. That is why I have been saying since March that a sort of “live-with-coronavirus” situation would remain for some time before we discuss the post-coronavirus world.

During the last half-century, humans have encountered quite a lot of new infectious diseases, such as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, AIDS, SARS, MERS. One of the background conditions that contributes to the growing number of infectious diseases is the fact that livestock animals and humans represent 90% of large animals on the Earth, and human and wildlife habitats have become extremely close to each other. In fact, the current SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have come from bats. Moreover, there is a growing risk that new pathogens would emerge due to a complete loss of Arctic ice and tundra permafrost in the next few decades or so due to climate change.

Therefore, it is likely that new infectious diseases will emerge in the future. We are in a situation and environment where we have to live with various pathogens against which we do not necessarily have solutions, so we need to develop a so-called pandemic-ready society.

Figure : Transition towards “Kaiso” (Open and sparse) and urbanization

2. Directions of necessary changes

Solutions for this situation could be grouped into three phases: stop the bleeding, treatment, and reconstitution. “Stop the bleeding” is a phase in which rapid deterioration of the situation must be stopped, and the lockdowns put in place around the world falls under this category. “Treatment” would be a phase in which society acquires a certain level of resilience in such a live-with-coronavirus situation. Then, “reconstitution” is the phase of restructuring systems according to the essence emerging changes.
However, the “stop the bleeding” phase represents a significant economic and social burden as already been observed, so keeping it in place for a long period is not a realistic option. Yet, a gradual return to normality without clear conditions will not work, as there is no knowing whether and when a rapid resurgence might occur.

As such, which directions should we consider? In my view, there are roughly four of them:
i) from closed space to open space,
ii) from activities where people gather in densely packed places to sparsely packed activities,
iii) from “contact” to “non-contact,” and
iv) from a society in which people rather than goods physically move, to a society in which goods move more than people do.

The first three of those directions are represented by a simplified diagram on the previous page. That is, there will be a powerful trend towards “open and sparse” situations that could be called “opening and sparsification,” totally opposite the progression towards value creation in “closed and densely packed” places (closure and densification) that human civilization has been promoting for at least the last several thousand years.

Most of the highly appraised creations of value in urban areas are situated in the third quadrant (bottom-left corner). “Closure and densification” are inextricably linked to “urbanization,” and may be considered as a driver of value creation that drastically reduces infrastructure costs per capita, providing occasions for people to meet and efficiently produce ways for people to enjoy themselves.

A museum is a place where objects from a collection are, in general, displayed in a closed space and where people gather to contemplate them. The more unique the exhibit, the more it will draw visitors, and that is the premise of managing it.

One solution for shifting to an “open and sparse” situation would be to transfer museums to open sites, somewhere in the mountains, by the sea or on a river, creating and operating open and sparse exhibition venues. However, even though it is possible for certain concert halls like the one seen in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, this is unrealistic for most museums. Even if you ignore the issue of visitor attendance, exhibition and conservation of artifacts requires a specific environment, which implies considerable expense to build structures to house them. So, based on the assumption that the transfer is not a small job, now the question is whether it is feasible to make the space and function of a museum itself open and sparse.

3. Towards open and sparse organization of space

Let us consider each of these aspects separately. First of all, regarding the condition of sparseness, the principal measure is density control. Not only should the number of people in the building as a whole be controlled by entrance and exit monitoring, but it is also recommended to control the number of people in each specific space. Although advance reservations are not absolutely necessary, it will be essential to visualize the capacity to welcome additional visitors who arrive on the spur of the moment and to offer an online ticketing system.

Discreet designs suggestive of distance will also be effective. An application that senses the distance between visitors in the museum could be developed to alert those who come too close to each other (distance warning). A mutual recognition option may avoid emitting alerts between a pair of visitors. In my view, it would be particularly convenient if all museums in Japan, and why not all over the world, had such a system as standard.

Then what about “openness”? It will be necessary to visualize stagnant air as precisely as possible, and to strengthen ventilation to remove it. Then if ventilation is insufficient, the air must be cleansed.

The first step will likely consist of monitoring the degree of openness. It is easy to tell how close indoor air quality is to that of outdoor air by constantly measuring the CO2 concentration in each exhibit space. In Tokyo, for example, concentration of CO2 in outdoor air is about 450 ppm, while that in packed office buildings most often exceeds 1,000 ppm. Keeping concentration under 600 ppm would be a reference.

In order to “cleanse the air,” it will be necessary to pass it through water or high-performance filters, or to sterilize it using plasma technology or the like. Technologies already used in aircraft among others are likely to be applied for this. Also, maintaining a slightly negative air pressure inside the museum to accelerate the inflow of external air and, at the same time, effectively purifying incoming air, is worth considering. Furthermore, harmonization with temperature and humidity control systems should be taken into account, which, in some cases, may require rethinking the structure of the building from heat efficiency viewpoint.

Thus, achieving an “open” condition will most probably be the biggest challenge in the process to satisfy “open and dispersed” conditions. It is advisable to evaluate the need for and goals of renovation after considering all the various factors such as monitoring of conditions, affordable and effective ventilation, and guaranteeing good air quality.

4. Creation of new value

Now, I would like to focus on the values of museums themselves.
First of all, which questions or points of view are valuable and relevant to us? The value of museum as a place to think about it is considerable. What kinds of disasters has the Earth and humans confronted in the past and how did they overcome them? What really happened then in daily life and how was it dealt with? Which differences could be observed across different places, and what were the impacts on other living organisms? Many of those past experiences that we should draw on can be found in museums.

There are many lessons to learn, not only from quantitative, scientific facts or values, but also from suffering that people experienced in those times when various infectious diseases prevailed. What were the social undertakings people put in place in response and what did they learn? The scope of interest is wide, including paintings, sculptures, music, novels, performing arts, design, architecture, and much more.

For example, Medieval landscapes from the time when the plague raged are still visible in many paintings, and lifestyles of people at that time and their ingenuity are absolutely fascinating. Then, about a hundred years ago, while people were suffering from tuberculosis or the Spanish flu pandemic, modernist architecture was born, representing a substantial change from Victorian houses of an earlier period. It is also valuable to learn about the details of ingenious creativity, underlying concerns and evaluations of outcomes.

For the purposes discussed above, I would suggest that museums push beyond the frame of on-site exhibitions, if possible, by giving access to entire collections and, as a sort of bonus, to thematically link information mutually shared between partner museums at the local or international level. And there, real works could be combined with the use of super high-resolution digital technology.
Now, more than ever, contemplating, feeling and thinking about what is physically before us is a necessity. Lists of itemized information such as Wikipedia are not enough. Rather, functions allowing us to perceive the world with an overall view are essential in the kind of situation we find ourselves in today, and it would be a shame if human wisdom were there but could not be accessed. As a non-specialist, I dare not give any advice about linking information and fostering awareness based on profound knowledge. But I would say that museums are now facing a real test in their ability to develop new spaces, to compile information, and to unleash the potential they have.

About the author – Kazuto ATAKA

After working for McKinsey & Company, Prof. Ataka joined Yahoo Japan Corporation in 2008. In his former position, he was engaged in a wide range of product and business development as well as brand revitalization as one of core members of the marketing research team for the Asia-Pacific area. Since 2012, he has been Chief Strategy Officer at Yahoo (serving concurrently with other positions). From the spring of 2016, he lectured about fundamental knowledge for the data-driven era at Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus, and was then appointed to his present position in 2018. He holds a PhD in cranial nerves from Yale University. In addition, he is an executive member of the Data Scientist Society, a member of the CSTI (Council for Science, Technology and Innovation) expert panel on basic planning and vice-president of the study group on accreditation systems for mathematical, data science and AI education programs at the Japanese government’s Cabinet Office. He is the author of “Issue Driven『イシューからはじめよ (Start by dealing with the issue)』” (Eiji Press 2010), “ 『シン・ニ ホン Shin Nihon (New Japan)』(NewPicks Publishing 2020)