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? 

Finding Connections

After a second move in less than two years, I again live in borderlands. Not the international or continental boundaries of my childhood, but in an overlap of industrial and urban space. Situated at a confluence of rail lines, shipping canals, and a state highway, I spend time in pandemic-isolation across from a gas station and a cement terminal, looking out over drawbridges, an EPA site, and in the distance, downtown Milwaukee.  

We moved with short notice just before the city shut down. Unpacking during the early days of the stay-at-home order, and so soon after the previous move, was a slightly nauseating and unexpectedly exhausting task. The new place felt alien. Just another box to live in, without surrounding greenspace, but clean at least, and with windows. 

After a couple of weeks of rearranging we finally got to unpack the art–a revelation! Unwrapping, placing, and finally hanging or situating these objects brought a release and relief that was unexpected. The boxy space became a home, and not just any home, my (our) home. Luckily I am now working from this home. 

While unpacking, trying to correspond via email, obsessively following shared social and news sites, participating in online meetings–both for work and for happy hours–the contact I have been making is distant, digital, and mediated. Like probably most people on the planet, I miss the physical. I look forward to again going for coffee, meeting friends for music or meals, traveling to see distant family, and visiting the grocery store without feeling on the edge of panic. 

The other thing I am desperately missing is seeing art. I am a fan of physical objects. I love looking at the materials, seeing how they are worked, thinking about why the substances behave the way they do, considering what the artists were trying to accomplish, and attempting to understand just when the object moves outside of the artist’s intention and becomes something more. Some people watch movies, others go to shooting ranges. I visit galleries and museums and studios because looking at stuff makes me happy. But what is there to see when the world shuts down?

The choices seem to be peeking into the windows of closed galleries, searching #virtualartexhibition, or catching up on my reading. One example that I haven’t been able to share yet (due to the unexpected relocation) is Stolen Sisters, which was on view in February at the Crossman Gallery at the UW-Whitewater here in Wisconsin. Although I wrote about it in the last issue of the New Art Examiner, the topic of the exhibition remains heartbreakingly relevant. Having another opportunity to bring attention to it and the artists included is an easy decision. Checking out their work is especially important now, as with galleries closed and fairs postponed, artists everywhere need support.

Having only digital access to art is difficult. After days of online meetings, the additional screen time is a hard sell for me. But finding connections, or at least looking for them, during pandemic-mandated distancing, turns out to be an essential activity. I am lucky to have art in my home that I look at frequently. Why? Color and texture, connection, memory, meaning. With the computer turned off the paintbrushes and the sketchbooks may lie dormant, but the things on the walls give the space interest. They enliven the experience and raise my spirits during a strange and difficult time. 

No sound? No fury. And no signifying of any kind.

Last night I heard a performance in an outdoor theater. What I mean is, I actually heard it. Thanks to the magic of technology my theater experience has been transformed.

It was only last week that, after a few years of declining hearing and a recent check-in that documented new loss in the mid-range, I finally plunked down the funds and acquired hearing aids. I’ve been told my type of hearing loss is fairly common and that I’m brave for dismissing vanity and using devices. But there is more behind this decision that just being happy to hear again. I’m also hoping to help my long-term brain health. When hearing loss in middle age has been linked to dementia in later life, I’m definitely open to any potential improvement in the aural-processing department.

the newly acquired devices

My hearing (or lack thereof) has been on my mind recently due to a job change. I’ve moved from having my own office–with a door that could be shut–to working in an open plan office. I sit with 3 other people in a group of work spaces around a shared table; four other people sit in a  similar arrangement in the same room; three more will join in another “pod” very soon. It is a social group with lots of casual meetings and chatting amidst phone calls, keyboard clacking, and photocopier noise. I knew it would be a difficult transition for someone like me, who prefers a quiet working style. What I did not expect was my inability to participate in conversations that are layered on top of the background noise. It’s not that it’s difficult to hear people, it is just impossible to focus on their words with all of the other noise. 

The daily office environment is just one problem I’ve experienced. In the last couple of weeks I have attended three presentations that, despite their similar structures, have provided very different sound environments:

  • The first: a talk presented by a local art organization. Situated in an echoey room with stone walls and few attendees, in the introduction of the low-voiced speaker, it was also mentioned that no microphone would be provided. I made sure to sit near the front so there would be at least some possibility of hearing something. When the speaker faced the audience–perfect! I could hear everything that was said. When the speaker faced the screen, or when an audience member asked a question? I got maybe 25%. And when people in the audience whispered to each other during the presentation? Nothing. The room was so acoustically bad that I was unable to differentiate sounds. 
  • The second: a training at work, held in a large, high-ceilinged room with multiple tables that each sat 6-8 attendees. Despite having a fantastic tech setup, the presenters decided not to use microphones. Again, when they faced me I could hear everything. If they faced the other side of the room, or the screen, I’d say 25% comprehension was a stretch. When the presenter, finally with mic in hand, asked questions of the attendees but neglected to hand the mic to the person answering? Well, I don’t think anyone heard.
  • The last: another talk at a local gallery. The presenter used a microphone! The room was right-sized for the audience and acoustically appropriate for the activity! Could I hear? Yes, of course, everyone heard!

The theater experience was a bonus. I had forgotten about it at the initial appointment when tasked with imagining how the hearing-aid adventure was going to work. It was only at the fitting that I thought about my regular ushering commitment. I had one play the coming weekend and two more within a couple of weeks. Having directed many audience members to the venue’s free hearing-assistance devices over the years, I remembered that a recent renovation at the theater included an induction loop system that works with T-coil devices.

I asked my audiologist about it. I was in luck. The hearing aids I selected include an option for T-coil. I was instructed to turn on the T-coil when I got to the theater (press a button, super easy) and see how it worked. Would it work for me? Would it be an improvement on the crackly headphone devices that are available at the theater? Or would I sit through yet another play missing words whenever an actor turns away, or having the device cutout if I shifted in my seat?

Good news (great news): the T-coil hearing aid is amazing. Easy. Seamless. Non-intrusive and discrete. I heard every word from the stage: beautiful, whispered, shouted, sung, gut-wrenching, gentle, or gleeful, I heard them all. 

I am so grateful for an organization that seriously considers the needs of their fans. Theater has an aging audience, but hearing loss happens throughout life. How incredible to have the plays more accessible to a larger number of the attendees.

For more everyday situations, improvement doesn’t seem so impossible to accomplish. Sure, induction loop systems are great if attendees have the appropriate devices, but scheduling right-sized rooms and using microphones for large meetings are not that difficult. And luckily the hearing aids are already helping with my open office environment (although I still miss my office). Related, although it deserves a dedicated post of its own, #nomorecraptions is providing great info (and a much-needed kick in the ass) about closed captions for online videos.

Basically, if you can’t hear the sound, then you don’t get the fury, and it does indeed, signify nothing. Enable your audience to make sense of your activity. Make use of available technology.