In the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, after a moment or two of hesitancy, museums everywhere closed down. There can be no doubt this was a prudent measure. By all appearances, museums as enclosed public spaces, with a variety of air handling systems, spaces that accommodate crowds and very often encourage high levels of interactivity, on first blush seem to be rather ideal environments for a virus that spreads most efficiently from person to person through breathing infected breath and touching infected surfaces. Conversations on museum professional social media threads started with a flurry of questions about how best to sanitize surfaces, then quickly transitioned to discussions about delivering programs through online media as museum after museum closed its doors to the visiting public, often well in advance of shelter-at-home orders from local authorities.
Following with lightning speed was a wave of announcements of staff and contractor layoffs and furloughs. In a matter of days, thousands of museum people working at every level, throughout the nation and the world, were suddenly cast into an ambiguous future. At this writing, their fate, (and as a museum consultant, my fate) is completely unresolved. Already the first wave has been joined by others as institutions have been forced to narrow the scope of who can be considered “essential”, and the recognition grows that contending with this new reality will likely be a struggle lasting months or years not days.
The very financial viability of scores of museums now appears to be in real jeopardy. By all appearances, we have arrived at a major turning point for the field.
Many museums, though they are closed to the visiting public, have found ways to serve their supporting communities in other ways, outside of the galleries. It has been encouraging to see how quickly museums have used their public service ethic as a springboard to adapt quickly. The Museum Group was able to rapidly aggregate a list of efforts that include using a museum site to directly deliver services to the community, such as virus testing, to the delivery of myriad virtual online programs. Nevertheless, the museum galleries themselves are closed indefinitely. What I will address here is the web of issues surrounding museums as a destination, comprised of real, tangible spaces, filled with real people.
I’ll start by saying there is nothing about my particular experience that gives me any advantage as a forecaster for the future of the museum as a cultural form. I will not make sweeping predictions here. As a museum professional, my only analytical qualification is knowing something about where we have been and where we were before disaster struck. Nor am I suggesting anything like a passive approach. Even if we feel helpless in the face of this crisis, what we do about it is something we figure out, not something we must accept fatalistically. We are not, in fact, helpless. We have agency and decisions to make. So what follows is one first stab at a framework for making educated guesses, finding some direction and some attempt to pull signals from a great deal of noise. I can’t do this alone, so I will pull examples already emerging from the stress and strain of the immediate crisis and I invite everyone to join the chorus of voices to work on this together.
First, a few analogies I find useful for thinking about dramatic change:
Punctuated equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology pioneered by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Summarizing as a layman for other laypersons, the basic idea is that evolutionary change isn’t always as gradual as one might imagine. Rather, in the fossil record, there exist long periods of stasis where little or no change in a species happens, punctuated by short periods of discontinuity, “sudden jumps” in which change happens rapidly. These abrupt changes are explained by how certain populations of a species occupy niches on the periphery of an ecosystem. The relatively extreme survival conditions on the periphery intensifies natural selection and divergence from a more static lifeform. A change to the larger ecosystem can cause a peripheral lifeform to suddenly move into an environmental niche previously occupied by another lifeform that may have thrived without changing for a long, long time, which then suddenly, for whatever environmental reasons, could not adapt and survive.
Extending the punctuated equilibrium analogy, in the present moment, there are many institutions, a subset of them museums, which have been existing in a state of relative stasis and continuity, but under the strain of this particular moment, will not survive and will give way to new variants which, until now, have existed and adapted rapidly on the periphery of the mainstream. Indeed, with hindsight, it could be said that many of our bedrock, foundational institutions in the secular, democratic, market oriented societies of the world, have been under strain for some time. The coronavirus pandemic is only the triggering event that brings the crisis to a head, revealing the vulnerabilities in the systems that have appeared to maintain continuity.
Imagining a possible future contains opportunities for delight and dread in more or less equal measure. A common feature of science fiction is to identify a current trend, often one that is rather latent and not highly obvious, and extrapolate, often to an extreme degree, speculative versions of both possible or wildly implausible futures. In this way, science fiction has a very interesting track record for imagining a world of new technologies and social forms that often set the course for research and development ambitions. These imaginings can be optimistic, dystopian or neutral, some reach a level of fulfillment (e.g.: robots, space travel), others remain elusive (e.g.: flying cars, time travel). We can ask, given where we have been going, what is the culminating future development indicated? Are these developments positive, negative, or just plain different? What do we want to cultivate and what should we avoid?
A flip side to discontinuity, a science fiction approach to the future of museums might emphasize looking at those nascent trends peripheral to the “core” work museums have been doing and extrapolating there for potential adaptations given the new reality.
Thomas Kuhn coined the term paradigm shift in his landmark book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In summary, the key idea is that, in the history of science, there is a discernible pattern of innovation. At any point, scientists in any discipline or domain work within an accepted theoretical framework or canon, and most of this work is additive or incremental, building, as Issac Newton once said, “on the shoulders of giants.” When that shared canon no longer provides avenues for inquiry, or cannot provide satisfactory answers to perplexing emergent research questions, a domain is ripe for a paradigm shift. A key feature of an historical moment ripe for such a shift is a great welter of competing ideas. As Jay Rounds once told me, until the new paradigm emerges and its efficacy becomes better established and embraced as the new canon, one idea is as good as another. This helps explain why there is always resistance to the new paradigm before it is embraced. Once the new paradigm does become established, it represents a new theoretical framework in which scientists can work and build upon each other’s ideas again.
It might be said in retrospect that the established museum paradigm (or paradigms) had reached a point of instability before the coronavirus hit. On a financial level, certainly, sustainability was seen to be precarious across the board. Moreover, the traditional academic disciplines and taxonomies around which museums were organized (science, natural history, history and art) were not only no longer mirroring the actual work of researchers in leading edge domains, but were also proving constraining to the creation of relevant exhibitions and programs for the general public. In recent years, an efflorescence of entirely new museums dedicated to previously neglected subjects or stories, seemed to show that traditional institutions and their domain constraints had begun to frustrate the forward movement of the field.
Coronavirus: First Flush Challenges
Challenge: How Long Will This Pandemic Last? The Hammer and the Dance
No one knows how long this will last, or how long museum galleries will have to be shuttered. The current energy directed at “reopening” the economy as soon as possible is motivated by wishful thinking rather than sound epidemiology. Blogger Tomas Pueyo writes in his series “Coronavirus: Learning How to Dance” that, rather than a quick return to “normal,” the experiences of other nations show that we are in a cycle he calls “the hammer and the dance”. The “hammer,” with strict social distancing, is the lockdown period we are in now. The hammer is the severe period necessary to cut down infections which, in turn, reduces the number of cases flooding the medical system. That’s why public spaces like museums are closed to slow the spread of the disease. But after the hammer comes a period Pueyo calls the “dance.” No one knows how long the dance lasts, but it is not a return to business as usual. As the lockdown inevitably relaxes, smaller, localized outbreaks will flare in a series of waves. The new normal requires highly organized vigilance, testing and containment in order to keep these local outbreaks from infecting large populations that are not yet immune to the coronavirus. The size and severity of each successive wave in the dance will depend to a great extent on our behavior. Moreover, a lot of hopes are riding on the herd immunity that humans might develop when a large proportion of the planet’s population has become infected or immunized once a vaccine is introduced. But experts are warning us that this virus is mutating rapidly. An effective vaccine is not a certainty. Even if a vaccine can be developed, if coronavirus becomes more like the seasonal flu, it could require a new vaccine each year.
Unfortunately, for museums, caution will have to be the watchword. “Normal”, if we see some semblance of it again, is a long way off. If we are to survive and reopen, adaptations will need to be found now.
Challenge: Museums as Social Space
One of the greatest realizations of visitor research in the past few decades is understanding the degree to which museums, in their real world, destination form, with tangible, immersive spaces, are primarily social spaces. Few people visit museums alone. The museum gallery has been revealed to be a kind of conversation piece. The discernments and interpretations of curators are one facet of the museum-going experience, but the meaning derived by the experience is highly dependent on who a visitor is, whom a visitor is with, and what they make of the experience together.
In its unwitting and confounding way, coronavirus has found the perfect hack into our bodies through human nature. It replicates and thrives on the human need for social contact. The glue that holds so many of our social bonds together naturally requires shared intimacy, closeness, and touch. Compassion and empathy, consolation, shared grieving, celebration, worship, rites of passage, courtship and sex, weddings, live entertainment, dining, dancing, storytelling, teaching, learning, a myriad of cultural forms, are built on our natural desire to be together with others. These behaviors are not only the most human, but also the most humanizing. With horrible irony, the very behaviors that humanize us as social beings appear to render us vulnerable to illness and death. A tragic dimension of this reality is that the isolation steps we need to take to protect our bodies also gradually degrade our mental health and well being.
Museums have used the awareness of their social nature to employ all manner of creative adaptations. A convivial museum has been suggested by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock, a place whose exhibits, programs and public spaces are welcoming and convivial, putting human needs at the highest priority. Museums have been described as “safe space” for gathering and transcending social differences. Elaine Gurian has depicted museums as a rare, special social zone where strangers can come together and interact. Lois Silverman and others have argued that museums do social work. Nina Simon has shown how museums can catalyze existing and new civic spaces for gathering and socializing. Museums increasingly have played a role in advocating for social justice and helping to heal historical trauma through bringing a diversity of people together. The preponderance of this work is predicated on the assumption that the museum is a destination, a place, where you can go and socialize freely without fear.
But how can museums thrive in the future if they are not safe to visit?
Paul Orselli of POW! has suggested that the days of the germy, hands on, tactile museum may be over, forcing a complete reassessment of the programs of the interactive museums, especially children’s museums and science centers. At least, Orselli argues, coronavirus might create new constraints that can spark creativity, even as it spells the doom of all the make believe supermarkets and other mediocre, widely imitated exhibit cliches for children. One museum I’m aware of is already discussing plans to pull all interactive activities from its exhibits in anticipation of reopening.
Call me old fashioned, but personally, I’m not willing to give up the ghost just yet; the idea that children’s and other museums might either revert to static displays like the ones I grew up with five decades ago, or shift to high tech interactives employing hands off gesture, AR or VR technology exclusively, seems like an experientially barren future for museum-goers. For kids especially this is sad since, for more than a generation already, they have faced an ever-shrinking and parched desert landscape of free, unsupervised play outside of museums. Museum visitor researchers know that the caregivers of children show keen sensitivity to the cleanliness of museums. As one microcosm of the pervasive “helicopter” caregiver anxiety impinging on the risky play of childhood, that hygienic worry has yet another mortal threat to contend with in coronavirus. A key future challenge will be to find new recipes for safe interactions in the museum. How this is done without the sheer physicality of embodied learning is a monumental stretch.
By singling out interactivity, however, we may be missing the forest for the trees. There’s a distinct possibility that infection picked up from interactive surfaces is not the foremost risk to the museum-goer. As I’ve stated above, all the evidence seems to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic spreads most efficiently from person to person through breath, and that infection through touching contaminated surfaces is a secondary, far less direct and common pathway. If that’s true, merely asking the public to come indoors and mingle poses a threat to public health as well and this could be the worst news of all for the bricks-and-mortar public destination museum. Several reports from the front lines of the pandemic are sobering. In a South Korean case, just one “super spreader” infected scores of fellow parishioners at her megachurch. The rapid spread of the virus in enclosed, heavily peopled environments like cruise ships, nursing homes and prisons is well-documented and underlines the problem. Other reports suggest that unlucky proximity to air handling systems might spread multiple infections. Before we focus on eliminating infectious surfaces, we’ll need to secure the entire physical environment — a daunting task.
Anticipating this hard future, Andras Szanto, writing for artnet.com has suggested that indefinite closure is not an option. He argues persuasively that museums are mission-bound to serve the public and reopened museums will be absolutely necessary for rebuilding and healing traumatized post-coronavirus communities much as they did after 9/11. In this article he lays out a series of strategies museums might implement to make museums safe. With a keen analysis, he notes that even if we were able to overcome the actual danger of infection in the gallery, we’d still have to overcome a public perception that museums are not safe. Showing concern for public safety by, for example, providing masks and hand sanitizer at admission, is not only a way to limit the spread of the virus, it also signals to the visiting public that the museum puts their physical well being at the highest priority. Sacrificed in the Szanto proposals, however, is close interaction among visitors, and strict limits on attendance, with pulsed entry to avoid crowding. Ultimately, under this scenario, access to the most popular museums might become as scarce and expensive as tickets to a Hamilton show. This would surely deal a heavy blow to the values of pluralism and accessibility driving so much of the mission discourse and work of museums. An unexpected consequence of surviving the pandemic could be increased exclusivity at the very time when museums have been striving to be more inclusive.
Challenge: Financial Sustainability
The first wave of reports coming in from the museums and culture sector are alarming. Hitting the pause button on a museum triggers significant complications for immediate financial sustainability, but the depth and breadth of the impact is likely to vary considerably depending on a number of factors. Small museums, like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, subsisting to large degrees on admission and store revenue, and lacking cash assets or big endowments, are particularly vulnerable to the rolling crisis affecting museums across the country. A lot of these small museums and other arts and culture institutions are signaling that they are in a fight for survival and will not make it without major investments of relief. Pausing, even for a short time, cannot be sustained. It’s an immediate existential crisis. We will have to accept that many of our most financially precarious museums will not recover and a massive shakeout will occur with all of the devastation that implies, to collections stewardship, the public commons and careers. It could be argued that, in the broadest possible sense, the museums that survive, will be highly dependent like never before, on the commitment of the communities that have sustained them. After several generations of discourse about why it is necessary for museums to cultivate and serve community, we are about to find out whether that relationship is truly reciprocal. For the museums that fail, the answer will have been no.
It would be an illusion to think that the impact has reached only small institutions. Yes, large museums have certain advantages: generous support from national, state or local government, large endowments, cash reserves and other assets, excellent donor and foundation relationships, high attendance and other forms of public patronage. Yet, those institutions also have large expenses and, like small museums, are often highly reliant on earned revenue. Fixed costs entail basic heating and cooling of closed facilities, with baseline security, building maintenance, skeleton crew planning and communications comprising the “essential” workforce necessary to make it through the lockdown. The vast majority of museums have been forced to make layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts to contain hemorrhaging expenses. With depressing familiarity for anyone who has weathered the grueling parade of economic downturns of the last for decades, these cuts have usually been made in traditional fashion by separating “essential” from “non-essential” employees. Unprecedented, though, is the scale of the pandemic cuts, in some instances entailing indefinite layoffs of over 80% of staff.
Still, not all museums are handling the staff reduction crisis in predictable ways. MASS Action has quickly rallied with a manifesto providing alternative strategies for absorbing the financial blows of coronavirus. Among other things, MASS Action encourages museums to take burden sharing steps that sustain staff across the board as much as possible, to make reduction steps equitable, and to exercise transparency and inclusion in the development of response plans. A silver lining of the pandemic might be that it affords museums an opportunity to explore new and lasting models for weathering institutional crisis and hardship in ways that are consistent with equitable values rather than with the usual brutal, utilitarian, bottom line strategies typical of the business world.
On other fronts, the inflexibility of dedicated endowments has come under scrutiny. The board of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has suggested that, under the pressure of the pandemic, it is prepared to loosen its rules for the use of endowments to support emergency operations costs where previously such moves were taboo. While it’s clear that AAMD has no real binding legal authority to permit this, the fact that a pandemic can provide the jolt necessary to second guess an important ethical constraint on endowments says a lot about how a crisis causes widespread discontinuity in a relatively static field. Indeed, critics have targeted museums with large endowments who have laid off staff, suggesting that binding donor intent is a poor excuse for not dipping into restricted funds when human needs are at stake in a global emergency.
Before museums raid the endowment piggybank, even if the relevant laws allow it, it bears pointing out that the investment portfolios comprising endowments have taken a massive hit in the collapse of the financial markets in the wake of the pandemic. Most market observers agree that the volatility will continue and, given the future possibility of a recession rivaling the Great Depression in scale, these investments might not have bottomed out yet. Counter arguments will be made, probably by board fiduciaries, that cashing out endowment portfolios at the bottom of a bear market is a bad idea, indicative of irresponsible financial stewardship. Still, we’re seeing how unstable times can force drastic changes in the ordinary guiding principles if the struggle is for survival.
The layoffs and furloughs have had a way of surfacing some eye-catching realities of museum staffing and employment practices. Prior to the crisis, museums had already been following a number of emergent trends corresponding with the growth of the “gig economy” in the rest of the American workforce. Gig workers, e.g.: freelancers, contractors, consultants, adjunct faculty, independent self-employed earners, etc., now comprise over ⅓ of all American workers. Even as museums increasingly dealt with financial pressure by borrowing business-oriented strategies for reducing staff costs, employees in some places showed increasing interest in organizing unions to build bargaining power in their relationships to management. Following the first shock of museum lockdowns, in a report on layoffs of museum educators at the Museum of Modern Art, it was revealed that these educators were contractors, not regular payroll employees. While the outsourcing of certain museum functions has been a trend for some time, particularly in exhibit design, retail and food service, audience research, IT, marketing, planning consultants, and client representation and construction management for capital projects, the contracting of educators indicates an expansion of the outsourcing trend to yet another critical museum role. One may wonder whether curators are next.
For museums under steady pressure to sustain themselves, it’s easy to grasp the bottom line rationale behind a practice that relieves ostensibly cash-strapped museums of the cost burdens of the benefits, office accommodations and other responsibilities necessary for employing full-time salaried professional employees. But if the trend mirrors the growing exploitation of adjunct faculty in colleges and universities, it might portend an evermore prevalent practice that museums become the kind of employers that entirely shed their responsibilities to fairly compensate and sustain their workers, reducing their contributions to a kind of professionalized piecework. In a time of intense financial crisis, it’s easy to see this trend accelerating even faster and the collective compensation and job security of museum professionals degraded even farther.
It would be extremely disappointing if museums were to become just another unprincipled bottom line employer to join the race to the bottom, further exacerbating the wage gap in the American economy, but a struggle for survival can pose severe challenges to even the most fundamental principles. This is an equity issue, but it also has implications for the quality of mission delivery. If contractors are seen as superfluous and can be excluded from the core operations of museums, relegated to plug-and-play integers easily contracted and dumped at will, it shows that the mission purposes these affected roles represent are regarded as extraneous as well. If respect for the museum educator profession can be degraded in this way, how can museums seriously regard themselves as educational institutions? The answer is, they can’t.
In this sort of exploitative employment relationship, it is impossible to see how a museum optimizes the accumulation of intellectual capital and expertise of its workforce. The contracting relationship also has the effect of separating the creation of the products from the served public. A full time staff professional lives and learns iteratively from their work. A mercenary, no matter how dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled they may be, is excluded from this privilege. As the corpus of what we know as “the museum” shrinks to a skeleton crew of administrators buying services, and with no workplace culture of expertise, commitment, vision and initiative, we see the prevalence of the “zombie museum” emerge. Without the the traditions, the values, the soul museum professionals bring to practice as full time salaried employees, you have zombie museums that don’t know what they don’t know and the museum profession reduced to peonage.
A danger of the of the Covid-19 moment is that it forces a spasm of downward pressure on the compensation museum workers depend on to survive. If temporary pay cuts are allowed to become fixed, if laid off employees are replaced by low wage, piecework contractors, museums will have made the least of the crisis.