The museum sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. We spoke to Laura Lott, President and CEO of AAM, to find out more.

laura Lott AAMBlooloop spoke with Laura Lott, the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) President and CEO, about the work the Alliance has been doing to help struggling organisations. She also spoke about the renewal and innovation that has been an unexpected feature of this challenging time.

The AAM, which represents 4,500 institutions in the United States, conducted a survey recently which shows as many as a third of those museums may not survive the extended period of financial damage and will close permanently over the next 12 months.

The immediate impact of COVID-19 on US museums

“Back in March, much like in the UK, about 99% of museums closed over a week or so, and lost most of their revenue,” says Laura Lott. “There is a misperception, at least here in the States, that museums are largely government-funded or funded by a couple of major philanthropists.

“While that is the case for a few very well-known museums, the vast majority rely on earned revenue for more than 50% of their budgets. There rely on people coming through the doors, buying tickets, going into special exhibitions, on cafes and gift shops, and even on renting their spaces.

“All of that just evaporated, went to zero overnight, and then stayed as zero for quite an extended period.”

There are many museums that are still closed, seven months later.

“They have missed what for most museums here is their busiest season, the spring and the summer. And now may not open until 2021, if they reopen at all.

Laura Lott on AAM’s response to the crisis

“AAM leapt into action, as most museums did, to achieve their missions in different ways last spring,” says Lott. “We started providing resources to help museums close down responsibly. That was something museums had to consider. How do you stabilise the museum and close down, taking care of your people, your artefacts and facilities?

“That was the first couple of weeks. And then it was about supporting them in working out how to put health and safety measures in place to reopen safely for staff and for visitors.”

AAM coronavirus resources for musuems Laura Lott

Training for staff was an important element:

“Staff are a major part of museum budgets, and they took major hits in cuts and furloughs. As a result, different people were serving in some of the front-of-house guest service roles. So, training became necessary both in how to do those jobs, and how to do them in this time of heightened sensitivity.

“Here in the States, wearing a mask and staying socially distant are controversial. There were folks who believe that compliance is an infringement on their rights. Museum staff were, rightfully so, fearful about how to confront visitors with that kind of division in our society.

“There were lots of resources that AAM was trying to provide to museums. In terms of how to grapple with all of that and make staff and visitors feel safe.”

Lobbying and advocacy work

AAM logoThe other major area that AAM has been continuing to work on is advocating for relief funding from the federal government.

“We don’t have a great tradition here of federal support for arts and culture and heritage, so it’s very minimal,” says Laura Lott.

“But we successfully advocated in the spring for museums to be included in the relief package that Congress passed. This is The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

“The funding that came through was a lifeline for many museums. However, as the pandemic and its financial implications continue, we need more relief funding. So we are back on Capitol Hill, urging Congress to act and to include museums along with other small businesses, which share a lot of the same concerns, in relief funding.”

The problem with social distancing

Many museums with smaller sites and a hands-on strategy may find they cannot impose social distancing measures effectively.

Laura Lott says:

“Here in Northern Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC, there’s a children’s science centre that we go to as a family all the time.

“It has been closed in part because it is just a small space, and very hands-on. The way that the rules are written here in the state of Virginia, they really can’t open until post-pandemic. Because they can’t have enough people in the space. Even if they could, they would have to close all their interactive activities, which, of course, is the whole museum.”

Touchless interactives at National WWII Museum

Image courtesy of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans

Museums have been becoming increasingly hands-on and interactive over the last few years. Suddenly, the trend is having to go into reverse:

“It’s really interesting. Things that I – along with others – was preaching even eight, nine months ago in terms of looking at interactivity, and different business models that were less reliant on philanthropy and government funding, have all been flipped on their head.

“The museums that were most ahead in those things are now finding themselves the most in trouble. It’s quite a strange time.”

Driving innovation

To an extent, the pandemic has driven innovation. A number of museums are exploring ways of keeping people engaged during the lockdown, and into the future.

AAM virtual annual meeting #AAMvirtual Laura Lott

“Disruption is always an opportunity to make a change and to innovate,” says Lott. “At the AAM annual meeting last May, we tried to embrace that concept. It was a tough time to embrace it since we were still all shellshocked from what was going on. But we used that time to re-imagine the museum. To observe and then fix some of the things that haven’t been serving us well, as a field.”

Laura Lott on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion

There is one big issue that AAM has been trying to address for multiple years. This is the lack of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion in museums:

“The pandemic and the racial unrest here in the States have served to shine an even brighter light on the inequities in our structure,” says Lott. “Many of the problems that are surfacing now have existed for a long time. But they are increasingly hard to ignore at this point, so it is an opportunity to address them.”

The pandemic and the racial unrest here in the States have served to shine an even brighter light on the inequities in our structure

The wave of feeling that culminated in the Black Lives Matter movement has driven change in museums, as well as other areas, across the world.

In the US, Laura Lott says:

“I think that the turning point right now is a move away from words and window dressing. Those big gestures of inclusion and change and equity that are just above the surface. Things that aren’t really going deep into the institutions.

“There is more recognition that the institutions are being held accountable by their staff, by their artists, by the public, to do the work, to follow up those words with real action.”

Taking real action

That action has got to be sustained, adds Lott:

“It’s not very sexy or glamorous. It’s hard work. You need to look at the composition of your board, and at your policies and procedures. The ways that museums were founded, the way that they have been built reinforced some of the inequities that we say we are against but haven’t actually dug deep to fix.

“I’ve seen some really great 13 point plans come out from museums. Places where they’re dedicating budget to these issues, and appointing expert staff who have backgrounds in critical race theory. And other things that are needed to actually lead and sustain this work in institutions.”

“We are honestly overwhelmed with calls for support and help right now, with the Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion work that we have been doing.

“We have been trying to figure out how we can meet that need. With everything from training to tool kits, to template inclusion plans to just the coaching that many of our leaders, in particular, need in order to deal with the tough issues that inevitably come up as you dig deep into closely held beliefs and policies.”

Digital innovation

There has been a huge amount of innovation on the digital front. Institutions are pivoting towards an online model to engage their audiences, and serve their beleaguered communities:

“ Museums did immediately leap into how they could repurpose their online collections, their educational resources and their expertise,” says Laura Lott. “They want to reach people in a new way and to provide engaging educational resources and inspiration. Both for the 30 million kids who were home from school, and their desperate parents – of which I am one. And for a generally traumatized public.”

Museums, even in the midst of facing a financial crisis, want to figure out how to serve their publics in new ways. Because that’s what they do

“Museums, even in the midst of facing a financial crisis, want to figure out how to serve their publics in new ways. Because that’s what they do. They’ve always been there for people in crisis after crisis, to help folks cope.”

In a situation where they can no longer open their doors to be that place, they have been searching for other ways to meet that need in communities.

“As a result, they have come up with some really wonderful things that will stay with us.”

A diverse online audience

In some respects, the situation has been an opportunity. But in others, it is a step back, particularly where museums have started reaching out to underserved communities. Suddenly, it is a stretch even to reach out to people who are conditioned to visiting museums.

However, Laura Lott says:

“There is a group here, Culture Track, that does research annually. They have done a special research project this year to talk about the museums’ response to the crisis.

ISM Journal of a Plague Year

Image courtesy of Illinois State Museum

“There is a data point that I found intriguing, and that they are going to dig into in round two of the research. Some data shows that the online audiences for museums here in the States are more racially, ethnically and socio-economically diverse than the in-person audiences.

“Access to high-speed internet, among other things, is still a barrier for many in our population. However, the fact that audiences are more diverse is a hopeful sign. It is something that we have to figure out as a field to how to hang on to.”

Laura Lott on museums’ social capital

A number of museums, Lott says, are showing evidence of their social capital:

“They are making their spaces available for schools or for parents. Providing internet access and childcare, or activities for students who are, in some cases, still home from, from in-person school.

“Several different science centres have been handing out lunches to children who typically rely on the school system for at least a couple of their meals a day. The science centres or museums became places for those families to pick those meals up. And they also got science kits while they were there.”

Museums are demonstrating that they’re not just nice places to go…They really are integral to the community

“There has been a lot of real innovation. Museums are demonstrating that they’re not just nice places to go when it’s a rainy afternoon. Or when your family is in town. They really are integral to the community. They have a lot to offer and they have one of the biggest commodities right now, which is space. And, above all, they want to serve their communities.”

This is something she envisages will continue into the future:

“Positioning themselves at the core of the community is where museums and science centres have been moving for at least the last couple of years. Probably longer.

“The museums that are the most connected to their communities are the ones that are strongest right now. They are the ones that people are standing up to support. The ones with membership lines out the door when they do reopen. Because people can’t wait to get back into their beloved place.”

A key part of the community

That, she says, is evidence that will be hard for the field to ignore when it comes to the power of social capital:

“Museums are part of society, whether it’s the education system, or healthcare, or other aspects of what communities need.”

art session at Philbrook Museum

Image courtesy of the Philbrook Museum of Art

Becoming part of the community, Lott feels, is one major way that museums can armour themselves in the future. Both against similar crises, and against the sudden termination of revenue streams:

“When they are integral to the community in all sorts of ways, there are mechanisms. Not the least of which is just the public standing up, to make sure that they survive. It is when they are not as relevant, not at the front of people’s minds, that they are at risk.

“Being relevant, being part of the community, serving their communities in different ways, is a big part of protecting themselves in the future.”

Diversifying revenue sources

Diversifying their revenue sources is something else that is key, adds Laura Lott.

“Then, no matter what the nature of the financial crisis is, they are not reliant on one source of income. That might mean taking a museum that is heavily reliant on ticket sales and building another side to it. Perhaps monetizing, in small ways, some of the digital content and digital programming that they’re doing right now.”

AAM Virtual museum leaders Laura Lott

Museum experts lead a session at this year’s AAM Virtual Annual Meeting

“It is a big challenge and also an opportunity for many. But we do need to look at business models. Although some of the business models that we were looking at before are the ones that are challenged right now, it is still something we need to pay attention to.”

Background image kind courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art