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Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

AAM’s Elizabeth Merritt talks museums, COVID-19 and crisis management

Museums across the US have shut their doors due to coronavirus. The closures will have an inevitable impact on the sector.

Future-proofing museums: Elizabeth Merritt

We spoke to Elizabeth Merritt, VP of Strategic Foresight and Founder of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums about the coronavirus crisis and its effects on the museum sector. 

“To the best of our knowledge, all the museums in the US are closed to the public right now. And the longer these closures continue, the more institutions are at risk of never reopening at all.

“In the best of times, about a third of museums run annual operating deficits. These institutions then dip into their financial reserves to cover the difference. Now, many museum directors have shared with us that they can only go a few more months without an infusion of cash before they would be unable to pay their bills.”

The impact of museum closures

As well as providing a fun and interesting day out, museums are a key resource for the communities they serve. Regular museum programmes include education, community outreach and wellbeing projects. Therefore, these widespread closures have a social impact as well as a financial one.

“The most immediate impact of museum closures is felt by the community,” says Merritt. “People are deprived of physical access to programs and services. And to the psychological relief afforded by museum visits.”

“Museums are doing amazing work, reaching out to people via digital platforms. They are offering education, entertainment, and stress relief. However, these digital services are being provided free.

“While museums are closed to the public due to coronavirus, they are not bringing in earned revenue. For example, from admissions, sales, space rentals, programme income, etc.”

Conserving resources

AAM calculates that museums are losing at least $33 million a day due to closures as a result of COVID-19.

“Museums are finding creative ways to support their staff despite this financial stress. Directors and upper management are taking pay reductions, redirecting spending to payroll, and finding work that front-line staff can do while the museum is closed.”

“But many museums have had to furlough or layoff staff. They are going into hibernation mode. Trying to conserve their resources so that they can reopen when the situation allows.”

Coronavirus, museums and crisis management

Talking crisis management, Merritt has some top tips for museums.

“The most important step for museums in this crisis is to communicate clearly and openly. Both with their community, and their own staff.

“They need to talk about the gravity of the situation and about the steps the museum is taking to try to weather the pandemic. That includes staying in touch with members and donors. Museums must keep them apprised of what they doing during the closure, and about how they can help.”

“Museums should also contact their funders to see what they might be able to do to help. Many charitable foundations are allowing grantees to convert programme funds to general operating support, offering emergency relief, and relaxing reporting requirements.

“Identify and apply for any available financial relief. Much of this is being organized at a local level. For instance, by community foundations or local industry groups.”

Changes to museum operations after COVID-19

Once museums and other attractions begin to reopen, there will be many changes. Visitors may be uneasy about visiting crowded venues, and fears about germs may linger. On the changes that we can expect to see in museums, Merritt says:

“Much of this will depend on local regulations. Mayors or governors may gradually loosen lockdown restrictions, while still capping the number of people who can gather in one place. Or mandating masks in public places, for example.

“The precautions that museums voluntarily adopt are going to be guided by the nature of their work, and the concerns of their audiences. For example, some might disable interactive, hands-on exhibit elements for now.”

Exterior of Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, one of the first european museums to reopen after coronavirus
Hamburger Bahnhof in Germany is now open again, with extra precautions in place

“They might also encourage physical distancing and put in place timed ticketing. This will help to limit crowding. However, limiting admissions may or may not be sustainable in the long term. This is because it is likely to have a commensurate impact on income.”

Many museums will be looking to Asia and Europe, where restrictions are already beginning to ease. Attractions in China are opening with extra health and safety measures in place, as well as limits on visitor numbers.

Museums in Germany have also started to open their doors. Here, extra precautions include plexiglass shields at ticket desks, frequent cleaning and capacity management.

Engaging with audiences

Although the physical buildings may be closed, museum staff are still working hard to engage visitors during the coronavirus pandemic. Museums have been providing education and entertainment in several ways. For example, through social media and digital resources.

“The number and variety of educational resources museums have made available is staggering,” says Merrit. “Everything from pre-school activities to formal programs that meet state curriculum standards.

“People need simple diversions, too. Museums are meeting this need with virtual tours, games, puzzles, and challenges.”

getty museum artworks social distancing - museums engaging during coronavirus shutdown
Getty Museum

“Some of the most innovative responses have played out over social media. Museums are challenging people to recreate artistic masterpieces with household objects or submit images of their own COVID-related art.

“Some museums are already engaged in what the field calls “rapid response collecting.” These institutions are documenting the impact of COVID-19 on their communities through images and artefacts. They are also encouraging people to keep journals of their experiences during the pandemic.”

Resources for museums during the coronavirus crisis

“Our staff has been working tirelessly to advocate for financial relief for the museum field to Congress. We are also providing extensive COVID-19 resources. These have been taken out from behind our member paywall so they are accessible to all for free.”

Those resources are available on the AAM website, here.

AAM coronavirus resources for musuems

AAM has written to Congress on behalf of the museum sector, to ask for additions and alterations to the CARES Act. These requests include the extension of the Paycheck Protection Program and the inclusion of supplemental funding for museums.

It has also asked Congress to expand the universal charitable deduction provision in the CARES Act by removing the $300 cap. The full list of six requests can be found here.

Museums need support

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the attractions industry, museums need support

“The most important thing for the general public to be aware of is that museums are at risk,” says Merritt.

“They will need their community’s support to make it through the coming months. This isn’t just a concern for the many people who love and value museums for the work that they do. Museums are vital community anchors and economic engines.”

Collectively, US museums support more than 726,000 jobs and contribute $50 billion to the national economy each year. They generate more than $12 billion in tax revenues. One-third of that goes to state and local governments.

“They are major drivers of travel and tourism spending. If we support America’s museums, they will help drive both our economic and our psychological recovery in the next few years. If we allow them to fail, they will leave a gaping hole in their communities that will be very difficult to fill.”

AAM will be hosting its Virtual Annual Meeting and Museum Expo on 18 May and 1 – 4 June 2020.

Background image, the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, kind courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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charlotte coates

Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is blooloop's editor. She is from Brighton, UK and previously worked as a librarian. She has a strong interest in arts, culture and information and graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English Literature. Charlotte can usually be found either with her head in a book or planning her next travel adventure.

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