To Survive This Pandemic, Some Museums are Pivoting to Virtual Engagement
Museums are in trouble. Consider the three primary sources of revenue for museums: earned revenue from visitors, private support, and endowment income. The first is indefinitely suspended, advocating for the second is increasingly difficult to justify during a public health crisis, and the third has been dramatically reduced by losses in the market. The Met and MoMA are laying off hundreds. While the threats those museums face are not necessarily existential, many other museums with smaller budgets will be fighting for their continued existence in the months to come.
There are major relief efforts underway. New York City Philanthropists put a $75 million fund together to help cultural organizations with budgets under $20 million. Laura Lott, the president of the American Alliance of Museums, has advocated for museums to receive $4 billion in relief in the $2 trillion CARES act. The Senate provided $200 million to be distributed via NEA, NEH and IMLS.
But as leaders of cultural organizations seek this relief—to be shielded from disaster by the fortunes of private philanthropy, or by emergency funds from the state—I am reminded of a prescient article by Lynn Dierking, published in the Journal of Museum Education in 2010, particularly during a week when museum educators are viewed as expendable: “Sadly, during the recent Great Recession, I observed that many institutions drew inward trying to figure out how they could survive with very few asking how the museum and its resources could support their communities through these difficult times.” While reducing programs for the public may seem prudent in a time of financial crisis, by turning away from the public, museums may lose crucial support. It was the public, after all, that staged protests to keep the Brooklyn Museum open when it was threatened by then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. And in a time of extreme financial hardship following the city’s bankruptcy, Detroit residents voted in support of a millage to keep the Detroit Institute of Art doors open. Public support can be hard to quantify, but can serve as a crucial backstop to closure.
Since 2010, museum discourse has grown increasingly focused on civic engagement—broadening audiences, increasing accessibility, and meeting visitors where they are. There is much evidence to suggest that the field has thrived in this time. But there is no precedent for the collective challenge that cultural organizations face when opening their doors is a public hazard. Whether certain institutions will be able to open their doors again when the time comes may well depend on their ability to maintain some form of engagement with the public.
For the last few weeks, #museumfromhome has trended on social media, creating a platform to which museums can easily attach their digital engagement efforts. Since then, I have been closely reviewing the virtual engagement efforts of the 218 AAMD member museums through a systematic review of each museum’s website.
While it’s not surprising that major national museums like the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art are using their websites to engage effectively with the public, approximately a quarter of small museums (budgets under $20 million) have also demonstrated their ability to drive virtual engagement.
For example, the Hudson River Museum, has a well organized updated landing page with three tabs—a notice of closure, a “museum from home” page, and a page for donations. The “museums from home” page has a number of tabs providing resources for children, including story time, art making, and science projects. It shares resources for teachers and includes an astronomy page. There is a link to the online collection, which includes recorded videos related to a variety of exhibitions, as well as written material and collection highlights. For a museum with a limited budget—under a $4 million—it has engaged the moment in a responsive way.
But among small museums, it is most common to maintain their standard website structure, while adding a notice of closure and some information about the pandemic. In these cases, it is possible to make some minor changes to the museum’s landing page that will direct visitors towards useful ways to maintain their connection with the museum. Below are examples of several strategies that peer museums are pursuing that others—resources allowing—may want to consider adopting at this time.
Programming for youth: With school closures and parents working from home, childcare has become a complex task. Consider programming either live stream or recorded video content that engages children in art making practices or creative projects.
- The Bass features an “Art for Kids” tab on its home page. By getting on an email list participants receive a link to a live stream art class.
Live streaming or recorded videos with curators and educators: Over 40 museums are promoting recorded video and audio content, primarily curatorial talks, interviews with artists, or education resources.
- Sara O’Keeffe, associate modern and contemporary curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art has begun posting a series of curatorial videos including this one with @yardy.nyc founder, DeVonn Francis:
- The Asheville Art Museum has begun posting a series of live stream programs, including a course on digital photography, docent conversations about the collection, and a program called “Dancing with Merce Cunningham.” Live streaming offers the possibility of more deeply engaging audiences by providing live access to content.
Feature the archive: Over eighty museums are promoting their archival content and online collections. While many museums have digitized their collections, it is especially helpful for end users when that content is curated and organized in a way that can be explored intuitively.
- Worcester Art Museum serves as a good example.
- They are also featuring recorded curatorial talks from the archives.
We want to continue to highlight ways in which museums can operate during the pandemic in future posts. If you work at a museum that is currently developing a digital engagement strategy and would like to share that work, please be in touch via email or twitter: firstname.lastname@example.org, @liammerrill.