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? 

Diversity Funding and Collaborations: Signs of Change?

The following article was published (with some revisions) in the March/April 2019 issue of the New Art Examiner.


It’s been a busy few years for large initiatives within the art museum field around efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. This January alone saw three major announcements addressing these issues. The efforts included survey reports, substantially funded programs, and collaborative projects with resource toolkits. There has also been important social media participation and less formal group efforts from within museums and other supportive communities.

The efforts are welcome signs. Let’s review a few of these efforts from a museum worker’s perspective. It is important for museum insiders to consider the potential impacts of these efforts, as they are related to two recent realizations within the field: first, museums are not inherently equitable places and, second, museums need to reconsider their practices if they want to survive within dramatically changing
funding structures and cultural demographics.

My focus here is on hiring practices because, ultimately, museums change or remain the same because of the people who lead them and who work in them. Funding and external efforts of course impact museums, for example, women have finally been hired to lead two national museums: the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. These hires happened for many reasons, including perhaps the attention brought by #MeToo, but ultimately it was insiders who made decisions. Are these hires inspiring for the field? Of course! Will they impact the fight for equity within museums in this country? This is yet to be seen.

Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled about the 2015 Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. This project put numbers to what many museum workers already knew: with 84% of museum leadership positions occupied by “White (Not Hispanic)” individuals, the stark reality is that there are very few people of color in influential positions at this country’s art museums. The more important finding of the survey related not to the current situation, but to potential opportunities for change. The data portrayed a depressing future, with consistently low numbers of people of color stretching across all generations of museum staffing. The result? There was no large, developing cohort of emerging museum leaders of color. The numbers were the same in the younger and older generations.

In response to the demoralizing news of the 2015 Mellon survey, some large funders and professional organizations stepped up to partner on a variety of attempts to change the course of the #MuseumsSoWhite leviathan:

  • In November of 2017 the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative announced its intention to provide $6 million over 3 years to “support innovative strategies and programs to advance diversity” across the field. Funded by the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, the projects are focused mostly on educational and professional development efforts, and include internships, fellowships, and youth leadership programs at 20 museums across the country.
  • In July of 2018 the Association of Art Museum Directors announced the AAMD College Students from Underrepresented Communities Internship. This is a pilot program intending to “engage undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds and nurture their career opportunities in the art museum field.” With support from the NEA and AAMD, the program will offer paid, project-based internships during the summer of 2019. Including mentoring and attendance at professional conferences, the interns will work in exhibitions, evaluation, programming, communications, curatorial, and outreach at 10 academic and municipal museums. The only Midwestern museum awarded an internship happens to be my former employer, the Chazen Museum of Art, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Announced on January 15, 2019, the American Alliance of Museums’ National Museum Board Diversity and Inclusion Initiative will provide $4 million in grants from three foundations (the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Alice L. Walton Foundation, and Ford Foundation) to “provide the framework, training, and resources for museum leaders to build inclusive cultures within their institutions that more accurately reflect the communities they serve.” Along with offering the usual AAM standards, sample documents, and case studies, the initiative will also provide support to 50 museums for “the development and implementation of sustainable inclusion plans.” Interestingly, also promised is a new tool to connect interested individuals with boards who are expanding their pool of talent.

Two follow-ups to the 2015 survey were also released in January of 2019 by the Mellon Foundation. The first is a series of case studies that demonstrate successful diversity efforts; the second is a 2018 update to the initial survey:

  • Intended to showcase institutions that “have been successful in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” Case Studies in Museum Diversity, by the cultural sector consultant Ithaka S+R, in partnership with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors, provides an in-depth consideration of 8 different museums. Based on staff and constituent interviews, observations, and additional outside research, the findings are individualized, but they are also more generally useful. Two notable examples in the report are the MCA Chicago and Spelman College, where efforts to increase collaborations and build curatorial pathways have been developed, prioritized, and most importantly, are receiving funding attention.
  • The Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018 is a progress report that follows up and expands upon the 2015 effort. Although there is much excitement about the changes after only a couple of years, I see the results as mixed: the field remains majority female, yet directors are still mostly male; educators are now 26% people of color and mostly women at all levels of responsibility; people of color have been hired at an increased rate, from 26% in 2015 to 35% in 2018; and although museum staff have become slightly more racially and ethnically diverse—the numbers of people of color increasing by 4% overall, and the number of African American curators doubled, for example—museum leadership, at 88%, is still very white.

These partnership efforts by big funders and professional organizations are significant, because it is clear that knowing about the demographic disparities does not always translate into action. When major funders in the humanities are devoting resources to making change, I am stunned by how long it takes for associated organizations to get the message. For example, a well-known museum leadership training program offers, according to their website, executive education “for the next generation of museum leaders,” but fails to address diversity, inclusion and equity in its curriculum. To provide leadership training that lacks basic DEI concepts is not only short-sighted, it is dangerous. This is an omission that demonstrates a continued willful ignorance of the museum field’s colonial beginnings.

Beyond the data, the inherent inequities in museums are dramatically demonstrated by more localized efforts to making museums responsive to current events. Related to the move to decolonize museums, social media engagements like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral are making the field conscious of its histories and roles. MASS Action is a collaborative project of museum staff (or “museum practitioners” as described on the website) who seek “to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices.” Some of the questions the project pursues include the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting communities, how to align the museum’s internal practices and their public practice, and considerations of how the museum can become a site for social action. It is important to note that this movement is not originating within museum leadership or funders: it is staff and people without much power who are joining together to redefine what their museums do.

Will the recent collaborations between professional organizations and big money affect much change? The 10 interns, 20 museum programs, and 50 museum boards that are seeded with these investments will hopefully see some improvement, and, optimistically, there will be positive, larger impacts as these seeds take root—the 2018 survey already demonstrates some progress. But, for perspective, art museums make up only 4.5% of the over 35,000 museums in the US that employ over 726,000 people. If museums are unable to make their hiring practices more responsive without relying on substantial help from big funders, it’s not clear how leadership, programming, collections, and exhibitions will ever become more inclusive. There is simply not enough philanthropy to support change on such a scale.

Why are museums waiting for big funders to lead the way? Puawai Cairns, Head of the taonga Māori collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, has written, it’s like “throwing fertiliser at our feet–we can grow or we can stand still and wallow in sh*t.” How long will museums stand in place, depending on generous funders to motivate change? Funding creates opportunity, certainly, but it will take more than money to secure sustained movement. Lasting transformations in diversity, equity and inclusion require clear priorities that stretch into all areas of practice. Make it part of the mission, and work to make it happen.