In this series of articles, Rachel Mackay, creator of The Recovery Room and manager of Kew Palace, shares some of the findings from her recent research into how museum and heritage sites responded to the crisis of Covid-19. Read the first in the series here.

There had been a lack of clear guidance for museums and heritage sites at a Government level and this represented a real barrier to successful crisis management at a site level

It is true to say that barriers to good communication and information sharing often exist during crises, especially conflicts. Despite this trend, my research has found that the Covid-19 crisis can be especially characterised by a lack of information, leading to confusing communications and extremely quick decisions.

This blog post will focus on the flow of information at a national level; internal leadership and communication will be discussed in a later post.

One of the strongest themes identified through my interviews and survey data was the feeling that there had been a lack of clear guidance for museums and heritage sites at a Government level and that this represented a real barrier to successful crisis management at a site level.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked what resources would have been useful for more effective crisis management at their organisation. The most common answer was clearer Government advice:

“Clearer guidance from government” – Operations Manager, National Organisation (multiple sites)

“Clear government guidance. Everything was left up to individual institutions initially which was hugely unhelpful” – Visitor Experience Director/Senior Manager, National Organisation (multiple sites)

Interview participants also complained about the Government response in terms of response time and clarity:

“The Government was almost actively trying to play down the need for a lockdown, until, really, they couldn’t move any further” (Participant F).

“I mean, clearer guidance would be lovely. But I think, the Government, they’re trying to work it all out, aren’t they, on the fly as well, aren’t they, because, you know, the week before lockdown Boris was on stage telling everyone he was going to keep shaking hands with everyone and we shouldn’t listen to all this nonsense! And we should all go out there and get it, because if 80% of us got it, we were going to be alright, I mean, that can’t have been long before lockdown. Herd immunity. We were all just going to carry on as normal. And then Boris nearly dies, and presumably at this point he realised that this was a bit of a daft idea” (Participant B).

Even as lockdown eased, confusion in Government communications was still causing issues, as can be seen in this example from Participant B, Director of an outdoor heritage site:

“Sunday night; we were glued to Boris’s speech; he talked about everyone should get out in the open as much as possible, bla bla bla bla. Monday morning, everyone was agreed that that was exactly what he’d said and we started pressing play on loads of stuff ready to open on the Thursday…But that afternoon, early evening, they started releasing more documents, and this very classic line turned up about “you cannot visit private or ticketed attractions” and everyone was like, where the f**k has that come from?” (Participant B).  

Much of the confusion came from rapidly changing circumstances, which on some level, was recognised by participants:

“In some ways I do have some sympathy for people in Government because they’re only human, and they haven’t experienced this before” (Participant I).

However, the speed of changing decisions at Government level clearly impacted what was happening in museums and heritage sites:

“So much was changing so quickly and you know, we were running different financial scenarios every five minutes, trying to work out what would happen and how we could survive” (Participant B).

“On the Monday… there was a discussion about whether we were being told to close by Government advice. Didn’t happen, so I think by the Tuesday there was again discussion, and then it got fed back to me Tuesday evening that Wednesday would be the last day we’d be open” (Participant G).

Even the timing of the daily news updates in the UK had unanticipated consequences for some heritage sites:

“Everyone was just about to go merrily home, because we were closing at 5 o’clock, and we were sort of pulling people back out their cars to go and help move chairs and tables out of the tea room, because at this point we said, well we can stay open for takeaway, and people can take it out and sit outside, but they can’t sit inside. So, we were moving all the chairs and tables and saying “why the bloody hell do they say it this late, you can’t make changes for the next morning”, but we obviously had to” (Participant B).

Despite the lack of clarity, it was clear operators were keen to follow official direction. For example, Government advice was cited as the primary factor that drove closing decisions, although when asked what resources had been most useful, Government updates lagged behind updates from colleagues in the sector (Culture in Crisis survey).

If museums or heritage sites took the decision to close on their own, they would not be entitled to any form of monetary or legal cover

This viewpoint is also reflected in the interview transcripts:

“We were really careful to follow Government advice, because we felt as soon as we started to do our own thing, that wouldn’t be defensible for visitors or for staff… And so, things like PPE: we weren’t providing PPE because again that wasn’t Government advice. So it was really tricky, we were kind of holding the line, but simultaneously, I was feeding back that the feeling on the floor from the teams is that we can’t carry on like this”(Participant G).

 “We were really, to be honest, waiting on the Government to tell us to close, we were planning and planning but just waiting for the Government to tell us to close, for financial reasons” (Participant J).

The organisation itself is part funded by the Government. So, therefore, it’s desperate to slavishly follow whatever the Government is saying. So, it’s kind of loathe to make any separate manoeuvres on the basis of following the Government line” (Participant F).

As these extracts hint, there was certainly a financial or reputational element to this reliance; the fear that if museums or heritage sites took the decision to close on their own, they would not be entitled to any form of monetary or legal cover. However, there was another factor at play; one of looking to someone to lead in a situation that was unprecedented for all involved:

“I didn’t feel capable of making a different decision… I don’t think I would have been capable of going “well, I absolutely understand this situation and I’m just going to strike ahead and doing my own thing” (Participant I).

This reliance meant that internal decision making became harder, as organisational leaders waited in vain to be told to take an action which was increasingly obvious.

“[Line Manager] was talking about the possibility and he couldn’t see it going past a particular date, but it wasn’t confirmed, so we were not able really to prepare, because we weren’t sure whether we were heading into that and so actually in the end, the notice was I think on the Thursday, that the business would close at the end of the Friday. So, in terms of prep time, what are you going to do?” (Participant C).

“So, I guess if I’m being completely honest, like a whole lot of places, being in the middle tier between operational staff and senior management, you know, senior management were saying “don’t say anything yet, but here’s what’s likely to happen” (Participant D).

Some site operators took matters into their own hands:

“But I actually ended up closing [the site] before the rest of the estate… I just kind of went, this is what’s going to happen. So, I was probably at least 12/18 hours in front of the rest of the organisation… I think a lot of folk were thinking we should shut, but wanted someone else to tell them they were going to shut” (Participant E).

Whilst lack of clear information is, as noted above, not unusual in a crisis situation, it is important to note that there is strong evidence that the experience of shutdown will colour any future response, including decisions around reopening:

“For me, the Government squandered that store of good will and trust around how it’s approaching reopening, and I think that – and I see it in other people – we’ll make more individual and subjective responses to reopening, because we went by what was being said before, and I think a lot of us look back on that now and think, I’m not sure how great that was” (Participant I).

In addition, when asked what advice survey respondents would give themselves in March 2020, one person answered:

 “Don’t wait for government advice, be prepared and try and see what’s coming before it does” – Operations Director/Senior Manager, Independent Charitable Trust (single site)

It may be for some that trust in official advice has been squandered. What is clear is that for many organisations, crisis management was made more difficult by a lack of clarity in the communications they received.

This article was first published on The Recovery Room – a space for sharing resources to support museum and heritage professionals as we rebuild after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rachel Mackay
By Rachel Mackay
Rachel Mackay has worked in the museum and heritage sector for eighteen years, currently managing Kew Palace for Historic Royal Palaces, and is passionate about enabling attraction operators to provide great experience. Rachel created The Recovery Room to do just that, focusing on helping heritage charities rebuild and recover from the Covid-19 shut down. Rachel studied medieval history and is currently completing a Masters in Heritage Management.
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