The Future of Museums After COVID-19: Creating Plans for Re-opening

May 7, 2020

While we do not know for certain when the pandemic will pass, museums are preparing to figure out their plans once they decide to re-open their doors. Recent professional development programs that are now being released about how museums can re-open and what they need to consider when they decide to open. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), for instance, has released its first AASLH Conversations series on planning on re-opening called Planning for Reopening. More resources became available for museum professionals to utilize in their own museums such as information from the American Alliance of Museums, Colleen Dilenschneider, Cuseum, and blogs. One of the most important takeaways from these sources is while we do not have all of the answers from this unprecedented event examining what your current state is of your staff, board, volunteers, museum, and community is  significant when considering re-opening the doors.

I recently attended the AASLH Conversations: Planning for Reopening webinar that was moderated by Lauren O’Brien (the AASLH Emerging History Professional Committee Member) and was made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. The speakers during the webinar were Martha Dixon Akins who is the Deputy Director of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Trina Nelson Thomas who is the Director of Stark Art & History Venues (the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation). Some of the questions that were answered during the conversation were: Does opening up ASAP send the wrong message? How are you maintaining relationships especially with volunteers? What can we do to make the best of this situation? Also, they pointed out that there are things to consider when thinking about re-opening including

  1. Make sure to have enough supplies to keep things clean and for safety
  2. Planning and logistics
  3. Communication between staff, board, community
  4. Collaborations: involve all members of your team of your team

The next re-opening webinar in the series is called “You are Not Alone: Reopening Small to Mid-Sized Institutions” will take place on Friday, May 15th, and it will cover what should small to mid-sized cultural institutions consider to assure patrons your team is doing all it can to make it safe to return to your place of business.

Another webinar that recently took place was called Preparing to Reopen – Strategy, Planning & Process on the Road to Reopening Museums held by Cuseum. Brendan Ciecko (CEO and Founder at Cuseum), Mark Sabb (Senior Director of Innovation, Marketing & Engagement at the Museum of African Diaspora), Holly Shen (Deputy Director at the San Jose Museum of Art),  and Ellen Busch (Director of Historic Sites Operations at the Texas Historical Commission) had a discussion through the strategy, operations, process, and planning involved in reopening  museum successfully. Also, the speakers explored strategic planning, design thinking, and innovative approaches to welcoming audiences back. In addition to the webinar, Cuseum released a blog post that included tips and strategies for reopening museums after the COVID-19 closures. The tips and strategies they released were:

  1. Work with all levels of government to facilitate a smooth transition
  2. Take measures to ensure the safety of your staff and visitors
  3. Implement a phased or gradual transition, and develop contingency plans
  4. Continue to offer digital experiences
  5. Keep a clear line of communication open with your staff and members

I especially agree with making sure that museums continue to offer digital experiences because while museums are making plans to reopen it will be less likely that they will open at pre-COVID-19 conditions. Therefore, by providing digital experiences we continue to provide options for those who are not able to visit in person due to building capacity limitations or being most vulnerable for getting the coronavirus.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) not only update their COVID-19 resources page on a regular basis, like AASLH, but they also released blog posts such as one from Scott Stulen (the CEO and President of Philbrook Museum of Art) and Elizabeth Merritt (Vice President, Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums at AAM). Stulen wrote a post called “The museum we closed will not be the museum we reopen” in which he illustrated examples of what measures the Philbrook Museum are taking when considering re-opening. For instance, he pointed out that he and his staff worked together to plan their next steps using initiatives they developed:

Together we created a framework for response under the #PhiltheGaps umbrella. This includes four key initiatives:

  1. Contributing 10 percent of all membership dollars to the Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund organized by the Tulsa Area United Way and Tulsa Community Foundation.
  2. Seeding a large “Victory Garden” whose produce we’ll donate in partnership with area food banks.
  3. Launching an emergency response online marketplace to help local artists sell their work and keep 100 percent of the proceeds.
  4. Producing a content surge that includes artist interviews, podcasts, live performances, and more on our social media pages.

The initiatives they developed focused on interacting with and assisting their community to help everyone who has been affected by COVID-19. Merritt released a blog post called How to Get Ready to Open the Doors in which she shared some thoughts on how museums may prepare their staff and exhibits for reopening.

Merritt addressed specific information she and her colleagues shared within the COVID-19 resource webpage. She focused on three important things museums need to address and keep in mind: reopening starts with a museum’s own people: staff and volunteers, when the doors open, what’s inside?, and how long will it take to queue up these changes? The first thing she shared in the post was why we should start focusing on staff and volunteers in the re-opening plans. According to the post, she stated

Museums will have to adjust their staffing to suit current circumstances. Some museums have supported their staff through closures, but those that have furloughed or laid off staff members will have to rehire before they can open their doors. Regardless, not all staff may be able to return to work right away, as they may be coping with lack of childcare, health issues, or concerns about their own vulnerability or that of family members. Commuting may be complicated by the challenges of finding safe, reliable public transportation. Volunteers—who typically outnumber museums’ paid staff—are often older individuals, and therefore at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Many may decide (or you may decide for them) that it is prudent to delay their return, and paid staff may need to cover some of the work they usually do.

We will not be able to consider opening our doors without figuring out how we will get staff and volunteers to keep the museum running on the new restrictions and regulations for a cleaner and safer environment. I also came across blog posts from other professionals in and out of the museum field that are relevant to re-opening considerations.

On Medium, there is a blog post written by Jon Voss who is the Senior Strategist and Director of US Operations at ShiftDesign.org called Redesigning Libraries, Archives & Museums Post-COVID-19. Shift Design Inc is a 501c3 non-profit corporation that is also a registered charity in England and Wales as Shift; according to their website: We take a collective approach to tackling society’s social problems. We use design thinking to help social organisations maximise their impact. Voss shared information in the blog post that was based on the work Shift over the past decade in community memory and cultural heritage. The five ideas he shared were:

  1. Prioritize investment in small organizations embedded in local communities
  2. Adapt digital to the needs and culture of specific communities
  3. Create smaller, more authentic opportunities for connection
  4. Engage with equity and access in mind
  5. Leverage assets to combine cultural memory centers with community needs like affordable housing

Voss’ blog post is another example of reinforcing the idea that we should make sure to continue to connect with our communities and help our communities keep running. A couple of other examples of posts that focused on communities is Colleen Dilenschneider’s Intent to Visit by Household Income: What it Means For Reopening and Meeting Visitor Needs: What Will Make People Feel Safe by Age & Income (DATA). Both of these posts focus on what it will take for visitors want and need from museums in order to feel safe to visit in the aftermath of the coronavirus.

There are numerous resources that have not been elaborated on in this post, but I have included the ones I have come across in the list below. We should continue this conversation among our staff and colleagues to figure out what we could implement in our own institutions.

Resource List:

“The museum we closed will not be the museum we reopen”

Reopening the Museum by Front of House in Museums

Redesigning Libraries, Archives & Museums Post-COVID-19

How to Get Ready to Open the Doors

Intent to Visit by Household Income: What it Means For Reopening

Meeting Visitor Needs: What Will Make People Feel Safe by Age & Income (DATA)

Tips & Strategies for Reopening Museums after COVID-19 Closures

Preparing to Reopen Overview

Membership Mondays – Planning for Reopening after Coronavirus

Preparing to reopen

 

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