If records cannot be accessed or shared online, the very mission of the museum is at risk ⚠️
Just before the White House announced “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” museums across the country announced temporary closures to protect their staff and the public from the coronavirus. Large and medium sized museums from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Seattle Art Museum pledged to pay staff during the closure. By March 18th, The New York Times reported The Met’s projection of closure through July; and a $100 million dollar shortfall due to lost revenue—nearly one third of their annual operating budget. Prior to the virus, The Met projected a $3 to $4 million dollar annual loss. On March 26th, the Cleveland Museum of Art announced pay cuts, layoffs and a projected loss of $5 million.
If The Met and the Cleveland Museum of Art are severely challenged by the coronavirus, where does this leave the tens of thousands of smaller museums around the world? Museums must turn their eyes to other sectors to see how they might provide more access and ensure a more stable future.
Innovators know adapting quickly is possible, and essential. Dyson, known for innovation through the elimination of bags for vacuum cleaners and paper towels for hand drying, just announced they’ve developed a new ventilator for COVID-19 patients. In a span of 10 days they created a design that runs on batteries and can be deployed in field hospitals. Stykka, a Danish company that prints custom furniture, released a flat pack temporary cardboard desk that can be mailed to your home—for people scrambling to set up a home office. In both cases, these companies approached problems from a specific angle: what happens when we eliminate what is perceived by most as necessary? What do we do when we can’t get inside the museum? How do we collaborate, share, and access collections? How do we continue to inform and inspire?
Museums share similar challenges faced by the travel and hospitality industries. During “normal” times, museums navigate issues of limited space and a single location, with only 5-10% of collections on view at any given time; and exhibitions experienced only by those that can enter the building. Perhaps one silver lining of social distancing is the spotlight on the range of digital initiatives designed to engage visitors from home. Well before the virus, a growing number of museums, including The Met, Smithsonian and Cleveland Museum of Art, launched Open Access initiatives permitting re-use of images of their collections, attaching the Creative Commons Zero (CCO) “no rights reserved” license.
Like those in other sectors, museums rely on complex supply chains and information management. However, unlike companies like Walmart, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, museums have yet to adopt cloud-based business tools in any significant way. Clearly museum staff have laptops and means of getting email at home, as well as Zoom, Slack, or Teams. Museums around the world release free teaching materials to bridge the real and the virtual, helping people make art using items and tools around the house—from coloring pages to full lesson plans like the Warhol Museum’s #WarholMakingIt, or the Polin Museum’s daffodil templates to incentivize virtual participation in commemorating the memory of those that died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Museums frequently use apps to publish audio and visual tours. Known as the world’s most downloaded museum app, Smartify recently announced that all audio tours are free through the end of the year.
Meanwhile, this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong launched Online Viewing Rooms to support the galleries and artists that would have shown in person. Unconstrained by space and a typical booth, curators explored new formats and hundreds of viewers could tune in at any given time: hundreds of exhibitors, two thousand works available for viewing—and people signed up. There were 250,000 visitors that signed in for the digital-only edition. These are great ways of engaging the public online. But perhaps the bigger opportunity for change is in re-evaluating the way that museum professionals work today. With “museum from home,” do the issues of digital records and access from anywhere become more acute?
Museum executives already know they will lose revenue in on-site services, from admissions and restaurants, to retail shops and parking. They also know that during this time they will save money in operating expenses, and ultimately, in time, visitors will come back. The question is, are those executives looking at the current problem like a designer or an entrepreneur, thinking about how technology may help them save money and scale up—now and after the epidemic? And if critical records are locked in file cabinets, or constrained to a single computer, what does one do? This is the underlying problem: if records cannot be accessed or shared online, the very mission of the museum is at risk. This is a moment for museum professionals to enter new arenas and test digital tools that transform and improve how they work. If they can do it with an eye towards testing and scaling up, letting go of some of the known, and embracing and investing time in some of the new, we just may increase access and ensure a more stable future for the cultural heritage sector.
This article was co-written by CultureTech Product Strategist Rachel Wright