Re-opening or Re-vision? Museums Evolving in a Post-Pandemic World

Our regional museum conference has been postponed, unsurprisingly, due to closures and delays around the global pandemic. The conference theme however, remains disturbingly appropriate. Working in a museum, and clearly understanding I am lucky to have a job and an income, the idea of “Museums Evolving” defines the daily experience. After weeks of closed sites and inaccessible galleries, planning has begun for the return of our guests, the chance to share our artifacts and stories, to contribute to our community, to again elicit joy and excitement, and maybe earn some revenue. But in the aftermath of the closure what we will be? Do museums simply adopt cleaning and distance requirements and resume interrupted activities? Or, as the world continues to bury its dead, do museum operations need to evolve, adjusting or transforming to accommodate the new realities of post-shutdown? How can we best utilize our assets to “share and inspire meaningful connection in a recovering world?” 

Museums have handled the shutdown in various ways. Some cut staffing, in some cases drastically, or directors and top-level staff have taken pay cuts, to save costs in an effort to survive. Others will cease to exist due to a lack of funding and support. Some closed the doors and carried on, scrambling to develop new ways to engage or build on existing assets to maintain an audience. Staff who still have jobs have been learning to video-conference, connect with digital assets to develop stories delivered on social media, producing educational content to be posted on websites, maintaining quiet but secure buildings and outdoor spaces, balancing fund-raising, and planning for financial shortfalls unlike anything ever experienced. 

In my own work I am trying to understand the next steps. In March, like many museums, we quickly built a collaborative effort that called upon the creative work of a team from archives, curatorial, programs, and marketing staff to produce digital content. We are lucky to have been supported in developing material in a new way. Ideas have been pitched by many people, not just curators, and projects have taken forms that we never had time to pursue previously: podcasts and short videos, focused on both collections items and wider ranging themes, but approached in less formal tones, interjected with humor and individual voices. The digital stories that have been shared on social media are collections-based, mostly developed in-house, and have been popular with our online audience. But as we move into planning to physically re-open, we must transition these stories somehow, and decide if they will continue, who will guide them, and how the efforts will be staffed and funded when bricks and mortar operations compete for resources and priority. 

Other museums have undertaken similar efforts, sharing or repurposing educational material for homebound visitors around the globe. This re-focus on digital engagement is an unexpected by-product of the shutdown. Directors of three prominent art museums recently suggested that the closure has allowed their institutions to see improvements in not only digital reach, but in other areas as well, such as emphasizing local audiences, improved communications, and changes in the ways their staff works–moving in directions that are collaborative, adaptable, and flexible. 

Smaller museums (those who are surviving) have experienced some of these same benefits in building digital engagement through educational programming, improving collaboration, and expanding communication, but they are also experiencing difficulties, for example in securing needed supplies. The flexibility that was so apparent in the fast decision-making around the initial shut down continues into the problem-solving that is happening around re-opening. In planning for cleaning and ensuring a continuing supply of products and safety equipment, or strengthening collaborations and developing consistent regional expectations, museums are getting creative, sharing information, and supporting new ways of working. They are evolving.

“It is likely that we and our institutions will need to take more, rather than fewer risks than formerly. We will probably have to be much more nimble and flexible to stay relevant and keep up with sudden sweeping changes. We may need to give less attention to long-term planning and more attention to a continuous process of strategic thinking.”  

Avi Decter and Ken Yellis, AASLH

While planning for the transition back to a physical place, to welcoming guests to our spaces again, a number of museum leaders are posing difficult questions about what comes next. Concerns center on how to best serve our communities and what museums should be, post-pandemic. What can we do that was not possible, or needed, before? 

A pointed question, asked by James Steward at the Princeton University Art Museum, asks how privilege comes into play: what can those of us who can (who will survive, who have financial resources), actually do? In a talk where he explores his concern for museums and the future of civic spaces, Steward explores what museums and other gathering places will become in a time of social distancing. He provides specific answers to how the current threats–both the pandemic and the economic fallout–demand something different. His suggestions include, most importantly: 1. extending institutional commitment to equity and inclusion; 2. building partnerships to overcome the digital divide; and 3. turning to collections to shape powerful stories. Steward concludes, “Beyond surviving, museums help us live,” asserting that museums serve as unique, important civic spaces, and in emphasizing our responsibilities to community-building, that museums will still provide important opportunities to gather, understand, and explore. 

To live up to this ideal, to be potentially powerful social spaces, museums must adapt. Some, like the Philbrook Museum of Art, have already started. In describing his museum’s rapid response to the changing demands brought on by COVID-19, the museum’s CEO says that there was “a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.” Similarly, the University of Michigan Museum of Art understands the potential for altered visitor behaviors as a chance to pivot. According to their director, we need to:

“re-envision our enterprise as experiences for people along a spectrum of physical and virtual environments, with the building as just one of those.” 

Tina Olsen, UMMA Director 

What does the museum experience become when guests are no longer able to physically visit, or event attendance is severely constrained by health and safety limitations? All (surviving) museums will face such challenges, whether a huge, internationally recognized art or natural history institution, a regional or campus collection, or a specialized history museum. We can no longer rely on content shaped for primarily on-site delivery. 

But our assets are not limited to our on-site exhibits and collections. Why do people visit museums? To experience our artifacts, yes, but also for our events, our buildings, our campuses, our shops, our restaurants and gathering places, our friendly and knowledgeable staff, our unique atmospheres, to find an opportunity to connect. With spaces empty of programs and galleries devoid of visitors, we risk becoming unused and irrelevant. How can we build on our assets–myriad in form–to not only remain relevant, but to help during re-opening, to move forward into whatever post-shutdown recovery looks like?