Risk, Reward, and Reopening: The Dilemma Facing Cultural Institutions

By Megan Anderson, Manager of Exhibits & Interpretive Planning

As we enter August – and our sixth month since COVID-19 turned life in the U.S. upside down– many museums and historical sites are struggling with the question of whether or not to reopen. Organizations have to balance risk and reward, debating whether or not they stand to see any financial gains (or more losses) if they open with a greatly reduced capacity.

On July 22, the American Alliance of Museums released the results of a survey of 760 different museum directors on the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The results are grim: one-third of respondents did not feel they could survive 16 months without financial relief and 16% feared that their organizations would close permanently. Most organizations – 87% – had 12 months or less of operational reserves. Despite these financial pressures, 75% of these organizations continue to provide educational programming to their communities (even while many planned to make cuts to education and programming roles).

Surveys conducted by Wilkening Consulting have found that public concern over the future of museums rose between April and July of this year. The full set of Wilkening’s Museums and the Pandemic Data Stories is available here.

Although these surveys represent a grim reality, all is not lost. Museums are adapting in remarkable ways. They are making their spaces usable during the ongoing public health crisis, but also finding new ways to occupy virtual space. Many have found that they can continue to serve their communities in similar ways: they bring folks together, offer respite from the pandemic, and teach their audiences about their world.

In a June 11 panel, McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, led an AAM Virtual Panel called “Reopening and COVID-19: Insights from Other Sectors and Regions.” Looking at the hospitality and travel sectors, in particular, helped illustrate how similar reopening strategies can be implemented. Panelists highlighted three main actions these non-museum sectors had to take: 1) deciding when to reopen; 2) planning a safe reopening; and 3) engaging and reassuring customers and your workforce.

Panelists Ian Jefferson, Mihir Mysore, Vik Krishnan, and Melissa Dalrymple walked through different approaches and encouraged conference attendees to look at current indicators to map a longer-term plan. In June, this panel rightly predicted that there would be a cyclical trend whereby cases would go down and activity would increase, only to see cases increase and activity decreasing once more.

Key steps in identifying a sustainable path forward are encapsulated in the IDEA framework: 

  • Identify interactions & risks
  • Diagnose & prioritize risks
  • Develop & Execute Solutions
  • Adapt & sustain

Panelists advocated using a point system to assess risk. Each individual activity or program can then be scored based on related risks, including intensity of exposure, frequency of exposure, and duration of exposure. If the score is high, what interventions might be necessary to mitigate risk? Is it worth pursuing?

The development of a reopening plan, panelists agreed, should not be a museum’s sole focus. Organizations can execute easy wins with digital content and continue to engage with their audiences through social media platforms.

While these frameworks and strategies will work for some organizations, they certainly cannot work for all. Sites with large outdoor components have an advantage over small historic homes and interactive children’s museums, for instance. Harvard Medical School reported on June 29, 2020, that air conditioning may be contributing to COVID-19 spread. Based in the swampy mid-Atlantic, I cannot imagine being in any museum spaces without air conditioning, but that leaves me few options if I’m being risk-averse.

In this extremely isolating time, we can take solace in history. Museums and institutions have weathered conditions like this not so long ago. Although COVID-19 is significantly different from the 1918 influenza pandemic, looking back at measures taken at the U.S. National Museum (the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History) reads strangely familiar to us now:

H.S. Mustard respectfully requested an answer to the steps he laid out for keeping employees from the Bureau of War Risk Insurance safe in their temporary workspace at the closed U.S. National Museum. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Keeping visitors and museum employees safe will be the key to moving forward. Mitigating risk with creative solutions could keep museums operational. Pivoting to digital content can keep audiences engaged and increase name recognition.

Many museums and historic sites are beginning to reopen with precautionary measures, social distancing, and limited capacity. Check back in later this week to learn how two very different cultural institutions are charting paths forward.

What do reopening plans look like at your institution? We’d love to hear from you! Please reach out to Jen Giambrone (jgiambrone@historyassociates.com) to discuss having your museum, historical site, library, or archive featured on our blog.

The pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on cultural institutions. If you can, consider making a donation to show your support.

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