COVID-19: Heritage Challenges and Opportunities

With life as we knew it profoundly changed, this is a time for all of us to appreciate the value and meaning of heritage—to reflect on what matters and which stories connect us and help us navigate an uncertain future.

As COVID-19 disrupts and recasts many facets of life all around the world, our heritage presents opportunities and raises questions for this challenging period and beyond.

Amid the crisis unfolding in Italy, one perhaps unexpected upside of the nation-wide lockdown made global headlines. Residents of the much-loved World Heritage city of Venice have reported seeing fish swimming in canals even in the heart of the city. Global overtourism has given rise to many environmental challenges and management issues in places such as Venice. High water turbidity in the canals, largely due to tourist motorboat traffic, had just become a fact of life for Venetians.

Venice, Italy. (Source: @fkaymak, Unsplash)

But with the reduction in visitors to Venice due to COVID-19, the water has become clearer and the air cleaner. It’s quieter, too. For locals, the dramatic change raises questions about what will happen once the pandemic is over—and whether it might be time for a ‘new normal’ that better protects the city’s heritage.

Other impacts associated with the pandemic have proven more disruptive. Festivals, markets, arts and cultural events have been cancelled or postponed, and many cultural practices and rituals are now restricted as societies hunker down in a bid to flatten the curve. Still in Venice, the exuberant annual carnival was cut short in February as COVID-19 began its rapid spread around Italy.

With origins believed to date back to 1162, the Venice Carnivale has a long history. The spectacle of the masquerade costumes and masks, replete with symbolic features, continues to beguile us. For a few weeks each year, Venetian streets would come to life with people wearing masks—a means of protecting their identity and blurring the lines of the usually strict social hierarchy of centuries past.

Today, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the masks worn in city streets and hospitals alike all around the world provide a different form of protection. In the years and centuries to come, the surgical face masks donned by many of us may well become a symbol of 2020 and the crisis we now face.

But there is hope, and we are seeing how heritage can be a source of resilience and comfort in such difficult circumstances. Many museums, galleries and other cultural institutions around the world have opened up their doors virtually to share the riches of their collections with armchair ‘visitors’ from home, enriching the lives of thousands who are homebound in quarantine, social isolation or lockdown. Closer to home, this includes the National Film and Sound Archive, State Library of NSW, Museums Victoria, Newcastle Art Gallery, and many more.

Others look to the past to learn from how our ancestors coped with—and recovered from—previous pandemics.

Above all, people continue to draw inspiration, joy and solidarity from practising their living heritage through home cooked food, and sharing cultural practices and rituals virtually.

Heritage, in all its guises, has an important part to play in fostering the connections we all need to get through this time together.