Museums Post COVID-19

Sunrise. On Saturday, June 11, 2011, International Space Station astronaut Ron Garan used a high definition camera to film one of the sixteen sunrises astronauts see each day. This image shows the rising sun as the station flew along a path between Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image Credit: NASA

“the museums that reopen, will not be the museums that closed” [i]

– Scott Stulen, CEO and President of Philbrook Museum of Art,

I think we all have a sense of equity, if something bad is happening something good should result.  COVID-19 has forever changed museums; the American Alliance of Museums is predicting that between 20% and 40% of museums will permanently close due to Coronavirus[ii]. That is “bad”, a “good” needs to come from this seismic shift to museums.

First, I think we need to acknowledge that the previous museum funding model in the USA is broken, the continual raising of one third to two thirds of unearned income has turned museums into “monsters” that eat their young.   The “ever expanding museum” model (capital funds to offset operating funds) is self defeating and not in service to community. Second, museums change from “being about something to being for somebody”[iii], museums serve communities both online and in person and this shift must result in a shift towards service to the visitor. Third, the massive number of people laid off from museums has exposed an underbelly of museums, that directors and senior staff often white upper middle class people earn multiple times the museum staff that work on the museum floor and these people are often of color and from a lower socioeconomic level.  Fourth, we must move from history (Art, Science, History) to histories (multiple points of view), that often the collections of museums arrived in a museum collection as part of the colonization of a culture and a perspective of often a white person colonizing another culture.  These four points need to be resolved and there be a catharsis for museums.

Next, it is time to pick oneself-up and dream, dream of the power of museums, and their ability to elevate visitors to moments of introspection, and awareness that is often lacking from our day to day lives.  As part of this new museum dream, is an awareness that in the United States there is significant income inequality and that museums are a meeting point for the wealthy and the homeless (as an example) to be in a shared context of the museum.  The issues of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI)[iv], will be central to this new vision of museum.

The financial reality is museums will close and those collections will be absorbed by other museums and in that mixing is an opportunity for a rethink of “museum”, in place of Art, History, Science, museums become, “being about something to being for somebody” and the collection, building staff are in service to communities.  The future of museums is a mix of digital and tactile both in-person and online and this new reality requires new systems and working models. This new model of visitor centered museum will be created using the tools of user centered design [v].

I am a strong believer that the only way to get past a “roadblock” is to imagine the other side and try to strategize “ways around” the blockage, to create new futures and opportunities.  One of the strengths of museums in the USA is their entrepreneurial spirit, every museum director in the USA knows the “make more with less” approach and just this approach will be important to both the survival of museums and the rebirth of museums.  Museums are people[v], they are not collections or buildings and we can break the previous mental models and reinvent “museum” as a group of people in service to communities in an active social role.


[i] Website accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.aam-us.org/2020/04/27/the-museum-we-closed-will-not-be-the-museum-we-reopen/

[ii] Website accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.aam-us.org/2020/04/13/three-new-scenarios-for-financial-survival-in-2020/

[iii] From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum by Stephen E. Weil, 1999

[iv] Website accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.aam-us.org/programs/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion/

[v] Website accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.museum-visitor.com/

[vi] Museums are Not Neutral, website accessed September 2, 2020, https://artmuseumteaching.com/2017/08/31/museums-are-not-neutral/

Comments 3

  1. Post
    Author
  2. This is very true of museums globally, not just in the U.S.A. (I work in a museum in England). Museums have changed over the last two centuries to adjust to the evolving matrix of needs within which they operate; from governance, perceived ‘ownership’, audience and staffing to regulatory requirements and finance. The last two decades have seen an extraordinary shift in the rate of change. Excellent article.

  3. Post
    Author

    Dear Trevor,
    Thank you for taking the time to read the article and give your feedback, very much appreciated !

    – Mark

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