The sooner we forget about the museums of the past (two weeks ago) the better we will all handle this crisis. The museums that we all knew of March 2020 and before are gone, never to return again.
I wrote the last sentence and paused, “can I really write such a statement ?”. What is giving me pause is fear, we are facing a new future for museums, and it is up to us as a museum community to form that future and it is terrifying.
As I write this April 6, 2020 almost all museums worldwide are closed to the public, many museums have laid off or furloughed staff, leaving in place a few security staff or collection staff in place to facility staff in place to care for the collection and building. Some museums are continuing to pay staff to work from home during April 2020.
The most likely outcome to the COVID-19 crisis is a great number of museums close, a large number of people leave the museum field and many museums become a sort of “corporate advertising”. Without swift action this will be the probable outcome for museums. In many ways I am seeing the current situation as similar to Hurricane Katrina, where corporations saw an opportunity and swept in to change New Orleans culture forever.
To understand the current situation of museums we need to understand the past.
- Private Funding: Since the 1980s and Reaganomics the Smithsonian changed from a government funded institution, to an institution to seek private and corporate funding. This is the current model of all museums in the USA, museums are funded from 50% to 75% from external funding (grants, individual donations, endowment revenue). Or in other words, museum store, rentals and museum admissions covers about 30% of operating expenses (staff, building, collections care, research and education).
- Majority are Small Museums: The majority of the approximately 17,500 museums in the USA are small history museums with no (all volunteer) or one or two staff. These museums operate month to month, often dependent on individual private donations.
- Dependence on Private Donors: Expect for a few for profit “museums” all museums need to fundraise and are often dependent on the generous donations of individual donors.
- Collections: All museums have “collections” these are the tools of education of the public, the collection might be artworks, or changing art exhibitions (art centers), or local history collections (the largest number of collections) or science exhibits or children’s activities for early childhood education. Some will differ with me that not all museums are “collecting museums”, that is true, but all museums have collections of art or science or history, those are the “tools” of educating and entertaining the public.
- Ever Expanding Museum: Due to the changes of the 1980s museums have been forced into this pattern of the “ever expanding museum”. Because capital costs (new building, new exhibits, new programs) are tax deductible museums are forced to keep expanding and expanding,
- Museums are not the Building: The ever expanding museum of the past is gone. Due to the changes to the Smithsonian in in the 1980s
- Public Service: We acknowledge and call museum employment and volunteering, what it is a “public service”. Since the 1980s we (people who work for museums) have
- Museum Culture:
- Public Trust Doctrine:
- Museum Endowments:
The predictions below are just that “predictions”, I would like feedback on my thoughts and will continue to update the list.
- The funding model of the past is gone, moving forward museums will no longer be able to be dependent on 50% to 75% of their funding from private donations. The numbers don’t work, currently museums are being forced to take out grants and loans to pay bills (utilities, insurance, essential staff, existing loans), even if the current situation only lasts 3-4 months, museums will need to reopen, play “catch-up” pay their existing loans and pay back the new loans. It is unlikely that museum visitation (ticket sales) will return to pre COVID-19 levels for at least one year to 18 months.
- Consolidation: Many museums will close and be forced to consolidate with existing museums. This will be a painful and lengthy process, of least two to five years.
- Increased Federal and State Funding: Without increased Federal and State funding, I do not see how the majority of museums will survive. Either large number of museums will simply close or the USA will need to move to a funding model more similar to the European funding model of Federal underwriting.
- Stability of Museum Staffing: Without a Federal and State effort to secure stable long term funding for
- Smaller More Nimble Museums:
- Closing of Galleries: Many museums will be forced to close entire wings or galleries to decrease costs.
- Museum Vendors:
Regrettably I only see three possible outcomes for the current situation. One, a large number of museums close and a large number of museum staff leave the museum field. Two, the United States moves towards a museum model more similar to the European museum model of government funding. Three, museums move towards a sort of “corporate museum model” similar to the Museum of Ice Cream. The third option I see as the most possible and the most regrettable. This third option is my motivation for writing this, unless we as a museum comminutee act and act quickly, this is the most possible scenario.
In all scenarios we are facing a remaking of museums as we know them that will take at least two to five years (April 2022 to April
As a museum community we are facing a new future for museums, the sooner we forget the “museums” of the past the faster (and easier) it will be to move towards a new museum of the future.
- Post title a nod to “Towards a New Architecture” by Le Corbusier, 1927
- Tweet by Taylor Gentry Stoermer, April 5, 2020 https://twitter.com/TaylorStoermer/status/1246804730686377984
- Tweet by Christy S Coleman, April 1, 2020 https://twitter.com/HistoryGonWrong/status/1245351258241761282