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.

Being open is clearly considered to be the natural state of mind of many site operators, so much so that it created a barrier to closure preparation. The loss of this natural state has been a heavy blow to many museum and heritage staff.

Throughout the interviews and survey data, it was clear that the impact on staff of the Covid-19 crisis was a hot topic. This theme covered lots of different issues, but there were two key areas which stood out, because they came across more strongly in the Covid-19 context than in any previous crises. Those were; the emotional impact on staff wellbeing, and the importance of adaptability.

In a crisis such as a pandemic, people are of course dealing with a situation that touches every aspect of their lives. In the interviews, there was a strong recognition that museum and heritage staff would be affected on a number of levels, for example their own health, caring responsibilities and financial stability, and that these concerns and challenges would often make themselves felt in the work arena.

The announcement of the UK Government Job Retention Scheme, or ‘furlough’ on March 20 2020 went some way to assuaging the uncertainty of many employees:

“They were really happy with it, and I think didn’t really expect it… Given the uncertainty of front of house working, they were pretty pleased, and the stress was relieved” (Participant J).

Despite this, there was a strong recognition from everyone I interviewed that for most, the initial weeks of the Covid-19 crisis was a time of severe uncertainty and anxiety.

The more immediate concern over job security or health did not, however, mean that the shutdown of heritage sites was without emotional impact for many. In a lot of historic case studies of crisis I have looked at, the strong emotional connection that museum professionals feel for their sites or collections during crises was noted. A similar theme has been identified here, even if for some, it felt wrong to put too much focus on it. The Mary Rose Trust’s Dr Schofield, for example, highlights in her ICON blog:

“As the crisis quickly escalated with devastating consequences, it didn’t feel appropriate or sensitive to talk about the sadness of closing”

Yet, the survey data suggests that this emotion was one shared by many. Respondents were asked to sum up the experience of closing their site in one word. Words with negative connotations, such as “sad”, “stressful”, “emotional” and “challenging” were most common, whereas words that suggested a more positive experience, like “calm”, “streamlined” and “orderly” were present far less often (Culture in Crisis survey).

This deep sense of loss can also be seen in the interview transcripts:

 “A couple of members of the team said “our lovely museum! Will we ever be in it again?” (Participant I).

“On that Friday as we shut the doors for the last time and we realised that we didn’t know when we were going to be reopening them, there were people in tears. Some senior managers were in tears” (Participant C). 

In a previous post, How Prepared Were You for Crisis?, I suggested that a strong bias to remaining open was one of the reasons for lack of preparedness. This can be seen in some of the interviews, where it is clear that planning that was done was based on a scenario where the site would remain open:

“Everything in that risk register was around how we would operate on a reduced basis rather than not operate at all” (Participant G).

There are good practical reasons for such a bias, particularly at independent sites where visitor income is all. And yet, even Participant G, an employee of a nationally funded museum, felt this way. There is evidence of the same mindset in other interviews:

“We were fairly confident we could stay open throughout… we really did feel confident in that and to be honest, I think we were feeling that almost up till the last day” (Participant B).

Being open is clearly considered to be the natural state of mind of many site operators, so much so that it created a barrier to closure preparation. The loss of this natural state has been a heavy blow to many museum and heritage staff, especially when compounded by the loss of opportunities and planned projects or events in what was set to be a busy and fruitful year:

“We had worked so hard for this exhibition, and it’s something [the site] has never done before, and never been seen. I was really excited to see it all in place, and see visitors’ reactions, so yeah, I felt particularly sad about that” (Participant A).

 “It’s just felt sad and when I’ve been back in, it’s just been weird. Walking around with nobody there, you know? Gorgeous weather on Friday, it should have been packed out, you know? Tea room spilling out in the garden, everyone having a lovely time” (Participant B).

Aside from the anxiety caused by the necessary halt of normal activity, measures put in place to help manage the crisis at a national level also emotionally impacted employees. As mentioned above, the furlough scheme has allowed organisations to retain staff throughout lockdown, avoiding mass unemployment. However, the imbalance between staff on furlough and those not working has in itself affected employee wellbeing, as reflected in the interviews:   

“People that have carried on working and taken on the workload of the rest of the team – it has been quite tough. Like, I think I’m alright… but some other people are, I think, feeling the brunt of taking on all the work, and just getting a bit bitter that their whole team are at home doing art, you know?” (Participant A).

“The other thing is that actually for people who have been furloughed, some of them get it, that they’re supporting the museum. Others struggle and think it makes them lesser people; that they’re not considered as critical” (Participant H).

There are therefore a number of factors which have combined to ensure the Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on museum and heritage workers. Perhaps this is why there is also a strong recognition in the interviews of the importance of mental health and well-being, and evidence that this is being considered and provided for by museums and heritage organisations in a way that was not reflected in previous crises:

“There were the weekly wellness emails… like, giving you pointers on how to look after your wellbeing and your mental health from home, which is lovely and I’m sure they really do help some people, I hope they do” (Participant A).

Staff wellbeing also scored highly as one of the main concerns for survey respondents when closing down their sites. In addition, staff safety actually scored higher than public safety when respondents were asked which factors drove the decision to close (Culture in Crisis survey).

This is, of course, not necessarily reflective of the whole sector and each individual manager, and there were some isolated examples in the interview transcripts where more could have been done to think about mental health in particular. However, in the main it was clear that the mental health and wellbeing needs of employees were being considered more than in previous crises, possibly due to an increased contemporary awareness of mental health, but also due to the overwhelming stresses and anxieties placed on people by the pandemic.

Opportunities to demonstrate adaptability were not uncommon during the Covid-19 crisis. 37% of survey respondents reported having to undertake tasks that were not normally in their job description

In my historic research, I found that when discussing the impact on staff, many case studies focussed on the ability to learn and develop new skills through crisis. This has also been the case in the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly around digital literacy. However, the primary focus in terms of skills and competencies has been the emphasis on adaptability.

Opportunities to demonstrate adaptability were not uncommon during the Covid-19 crisis. 37% of survey respondents reported having to undertake tasks that were not normally in their job description whilst carrying out the shutdown of their sites. In addition to this requirement, closed doors meant learning to engage with audiences in new ways. Finally, mass furlough meant one person taking on the job of many; often with little or no training. Evidence of all three of these situations can be found in the interview transcripts:

“I’m having to do all sorts of things that I would never be asked to do before, but now, if you need to pick up a hoover or dust, or whatever, you just do it” (Participant A).

“I just said listen, forget everything you were meant to be doing, like, that’s a blank canvas now. Just completely look at the resources and the events and turn them online digitally, so the engagement team were brilliant at that” (Participant D).

“So, my colleague is the Facilities and Maintenance Coordinator and she’s been on furlough… so I’ve kind of picked stuff up as I’ve gone along really” (Participant J)

Similar situations were reported by survey respondents:

“Overnight I became an IT contractor!” – Operations Director/Senior Manager, Independent Charitable Trust (single site)

Often, this requirement for adaptability allowed museums and heritage professionals to recognise that they were already multi-skilled, and could rise to a challenge when necessary. Participants expressed pride in their work, or the work of their teams.

“It’s made me really remember that I’m really flexible and I actually enjoy being chucked all sorts of different challenges… I’m thankful that I’m quite flexible and I guess, versatile” (Participant A).  

“I’m learning purely as I go along, not being a digital person at all before about 7 weeks ago [laughs]. I’m really quite proud of myself!” (Participant D).

However, there was also recognition that for others, adaptability presented more of a challenge:

“I think people who are still working are having to get stuck into all sorts of stuff that they would probably never of dreamt of. And that is humbling, which is great [laughs]… some people need to be taken down a peg or two” (Participant A).

What does this emphasis on adaptability in a crisis mean for skills development in the future? For some, it has inspired a rethinking of their organisational make up; to ensure that adaptability is baked in to structures:

“Maybe the number of appointments we make, maybe the number of specialist roles that we have – we don’t have people that are multi-skilled. If you had a family business, Fred would be able to do a bit of that and a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of this, when the chips are down. We don’t have that; we have lots of people in specialist roles who can’t do anything else… so when the chips are down, they can still only do what they are paid to do, and I think we need to review that” (Participant C).

Adaptability and flexibility were themes that did occur in my reading of historic case studies, but here there is more of an emphasis in the role these competencies will play in the future-proofing of heritage organisations. As with many of the findings of this research, it remains to be seen whether this focus will continue in a post-crisis world, but given the universally positive outcomes of these traits, they can certainly be understood as skills that the future heritage workforce will look to develop.  

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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