Museums in a COVID crisis

Behind all the virtual tours, tweets and stay-at-home support for home schooling families, museums are facing an existential crisis, as their doors stay closed and they lose their physical connection to audiences. Fourth Street associate, Tim Ambrose, a leading expert in museum management, reflects on an international webinar on how to help museums through the lockdown and beyond.

Museums around the world are facing up to the many different impacts of the coronavirus crisis – social, economic, cultural and political. Governments and sectoral agencies and organisations are helping in different ways to mitigate some of the immediate, short-term impacts from closures such as loss of earned income, reduction in charitable contributions and staff lay-offs. A range of welcome support is being provided through direct financial aid, tax and rent reliefs, income support for staff and freelancers, and tax holidays. However, it is becoming clear that in the medium to long term the sector as a whole is likely to face significant reductions in capacity, in parallel with the wider cultural ecosystem of which it is such an important part. Indeed, it seems likely that we will see a substantial reshaping and reordering of the sector and the different public and private sector organisations that support it as it gradually comes to terms with the continuing existential threat that the pandemic is causing.

At international level, there is a great deal of discussion underway about the role of museums at this unprecedented time of crisis. A webinar, chaired by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) on Friday 10th April which attracted some 1400 participants, provided a number of insights into how museums and their funding agencies are responding to the lock-down in different countries and what the future might hold.

Many museums have successfully turned to digital interfaces with their on-line audiences to maintain and build public interest in their collections and services. There has been a significant increase in traffic to museum websites – the Louvre in Paris for example reports an increase from 40,000 to 400,000 per day – reflecting not only the importance of accessible cultural provision for well-being and mental health, but also public trust in cultural institutions to continue to deliver services that have cultural and educational value. Indeed, anyone turning to sites such as that of the Museum Computer Network (MCN) is likely to be astonished by the sheer number and range of museum websites now available, many of which are providing virtual tours of their galleries, access to their collections, podcasts and blogs as well as a huge range of informal and formal learning activities for people of all ages and interests. In many ways, the enforced focus on digital access and digital experience may provide opportunities not only to reshape and rebalance forms of museum engagement for the future but could help to democratise museums through providing new forms of interactivity with new audiences. Those museums that have invested in virtual service provision including social media in recent years are now realising the value of their investment in ways that could never have been foreseen.

While connectivity with public audiences was a leitmotif of the webinar, connectivity within the sector itself was also seen to be important. As ICOM’s work and that of the European Union over the years have demonstrated, collaboration and cooperation are vital for the health of the sector (see for example work by the Network of European Museum Organisations). Continuing cooperation between museums in order to share experience and knowledge in the face of the crisis is hugely important; new types of collaboration with other cultural and educational institutions like universities, the performing arts, libraries and archives, and research institutes are also essential if museums are to counter the continuing loss of the physical connection with their audiences. But so too is co-working with local urban and rural authorities, now under immense strain from the immediate impact of the virus on vulnerable sections of their populations and its likely longer-term effects.

A recent valuable work programme and publication by OECD and ICOM emphasised the importance of museums and cultural heritage in local development. It argued that museums, as powerful assets for local development, can help attract tourists, bring revenue, regenerate local economies, promote inclusion, boost cultural diversity and reinvent territorial identity. The challenge now is to explore how those goals can continue to be relevant using virtual platforms and networks alone rather than physical and virtual platforms working in tandem. As a number of webinar speakers made clear, there is a particular and urgent need to upskill the museum workforce in the full range of digital competencies. This is singularly important if museums are to optimise their potential as valued and valuable cultural entities in the paradigm shift that we are all now facing and to help re-build society and public cohesion as we move into a post-virus future.

What was perhaps not mentioned in any detail in the webinar is the opportunity to re-assess vision, mission, values and strategic objectives as well as working methods that lock-down is providing for those working in and for museums. Of course, it is entirely understandable that for many museums the capacity of their trustees, staff and volunteers is currently severely constrained and will continue to be for some as yet undefined time to come. But time is a resource that for many involved in museums is perhaps now more available than we are used to. How do we put it to best effect to help mitigate the worst effects of the crisis and at the same time prepare for a post-virus future? It is clear that alongside tried and tested technologies like e-mail and social media, the conferencing technology available such as Zoom and Teams is being used effectively to continue working in the sector. It is providing the connectivity that allows people involved in managing and marketing their museum to ‘meet’, discuss and consider what might happen now and what might happen next. There are thus many opportunities to use lockdown time to advantage e.g. rethinking vision/mission, reconsidering or rewriting forward plans, producing policy and strategy papers and reports, undertaking market and academic research, training and working on CPD programmes, exploring what other museums are doing through their digital access points, discussing museum practice with colleagues and through specialist networks etc. While there will of course and wholly justifiably be continuing concerns about its financial sustainability, a museum has the potential to build capacity on a number of fronts if the time now made so suddenly and unexpectedly available is spent wisely and productively.

To end, let me borrow the words of Joan Roca, the Director of the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHBA), who spoke so eloquently at the OECD/ICOM webinar – ‘Confinement sharpens the imagination and it is a good moment to think about the future.’