Recover and Reimagine: Museums and Libraries Building Back Better Together

For International Museum Day 2021 (18 May), the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has invited their community to create, imagine and share new practices and innovative solutions to present challenges under the theme: “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine”.

GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) have been self-evaluating over the past year perhaps more than ever before. The acute challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in many institutions temporarily closing their doors, has driven professionals in the sector to look to the future for new and emerging forms of community engagement, service, and value-creation.

In the very immediate term, joint initiatives for information and knowledge-sharing made a critical difference in the first year of the pandemic, as institutions were closing their doors without a clear view of the path back to normality. For example, the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project, a joint research partnership between OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and Battelle, combined resources to answer critical research questions that could lead to institutions reopening safely.

But also taking a longer view, looking beyond the immediate recovery, this is a critical time to engage deeper and reimagine the role of memory institutions in the societies we want to create – and to advocate for this role.

As ICOM calls for reflection on the future of museums for International Museum Day, we underline that this is a shared challenge, and we have much to gain from engagement between libraries, museums, and the rest of the Sector in working together to build a better future.

A Sustainable Future for All

At the international level, civil society organisations representing libraries, museums, and other memory institutions have been working to articulate how our institutions contribute to sustainable development.

At the heart of this work is the answer to the question: how do our institutions help create a better world for tomorrow? This can be through the acceleration of SDG delivery, by connecting people to education opportunities, bolstering the creative economy, inspiring multicultural exchange and respect, and safeguarding our cultural heritage for future generations. Both IFLA and ICOM have done extensive work on identifying where our areas of the Sector can impact on Agenda 2030.

As we advance this work, one critical point to remember is that our voices are stronger together.

The Culture 2030 Goal Campaign is an excellent example of how civil society representing a range of cultural stakeholders can come together to amplify one another’s message. The strong response and endorsement of the #culture2030goal Statement on Culture and the Covid-19 Pandemic is testament to the power of such collaboration. As we come up to the anniversary of this statement, its strong call for culture to be at the heart of the COVID-19 response, and the efforts to rebuild our societies following the pandemic, is more relevant than ever.

In a similar spirit, IFLA will work with a wide swath of civil society representing cultural actors during the upcoming Third Civil Society Forum relating to the UNESCO 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of Diverse Cultural Expressions. Through our participation in this Forum, we will join voices with other cultural stakeholders to make recommendations to governments for action to uphold the role of culture in sustainable development.

Building back better together starts now, but cannot stop once the pandemic is behind is. Looking to 2030 and beyond, museums, libraries, and all cultural actors must join together to champion culture in sustainable development – for the future of our sector and institutions, but also for the benefit of our communities we serve and the societies in which we live.

Culture in the Digital Environment

Although memory institutions are now reopening their doors, the landscape for information exchange and audience/user engagement has been perhaps permanently changed. COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation – with the UN affirming that the pandemic has made universal digital access essential.

Looking to the future, museums, libraries, and other memory institutions should continue to foster capacity building and knowledge exchange to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital shift.

For libraries, the digital transformation is raising questions of remote access and digital literacy skill transfer. Answers will be necessary for libraries to fulfil their potential to connect people to the internet, digital resources, and the learning opportunities needed to meaningfully use them.

Meaningful access can also include the ability to re-use and transform digital material in ways that fuel creativity and open up the possibility of new economic models. In a previous blog, IFLA has explored how both libraries and museums are opening up collections to support creativity.

These cases follow the OpenGLAM principles, another example of a consortium of like-minded creative actors coming together to call for meaningful engagement with cultural heritage through building consensus and working towards greater accessibility. They allow us to reimagine the way that our audiences interact with cultural heritage, such as the possibility to use cultural heritage as a jumping-off point for new ideas and creative enterprises.

Clearly, doing this effectively and ethically also requires shared reflection also, both in other to understand the relevant ethical issues, and to advocate for copyright laws that do not place unnecessary barriers on access and reuse. Museums, libraries, and the entire GLAM sector can make a stronger case for legal frameworks that allow these possibilities to flourish when making a case together. 

Many Voices in the Narrative

In the future we want, no one is left behind. This includes ensuring that those whose voices, stories, and cultural heritage have traditionally been marginalised are no longer left out of the narrative.

With the past year bringing a cultural shift and increased calls for reckoning with social injustices, those institutions in which culture is experienced and exchanged, where memory and stories are accessed, are important transfer points. Embracing the role of sites of cultural exchange – in which stories are co-created and new narratives can be accessed and explored – will be a critical way for memory institutions to provide value to their communities now and in the future.

Museums and libraries can work together to use their collections in new ways and to promote new interpretations. An interesting model can be found at the University of Miami, through the Andrew W. Mellon CREATE Grants Program. This partnership between the University of Miami Libraries and Lowe Art Museum invite grantees to use the collections of both institutions in education-focussed projects that “advance diversity, equity, and inclusion and address the ways in which the projects promote anti-racism and social justice”.

Collaboration and resource-sharing between memory institutions, especially with the focus on advancing scholarship, education, and co-creation, can be a meaningful way to build on the power of both institutions in creating platforms for new narratives.


International Museum Day 2021 provides a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the value of strengthening partnerships with fellow memory institutions in their networks. When making plans for the future, be it COVID-19 recovery or longer-term goals, doing so in partnership with the GLAM sector can bring mutual benefits. Although our missions differ, the value we bring to our communities is aligned, and the future we want to reimagine is one in which we work together to better our communities and bring their stories to life.