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.

For larger sites which regularly attract crowds, the rise of terrorist incidents in museums and visitor attractions has understandably been an area of focus

In this first piece, How Prepared Were You for Crisis? I look at how museums and heritage sites anticipated the Covid-19 crisis, and how prepared they were. I also look at how some operators drew on previous experience to help them manage different aspects of the crisis.

My research is based on the results of the Culture in Crisis survey, which got 63 responses from operational members of staff in April 2020, and interviews with ten anonymous operational managers working within the UK museum and heritage sector. I refer to them here as ‘Participant A, B’ etc.

How Prepared Were You for Crisis?

It is well known that within crisis management, experience builds preparation. Yet, for most UK museum and heritage professionals, there was no precedent for Covid-19.  As Participant C, the Security Manager for an independent heritage organisation put it:

When you put a risk register together, one of your tools, of course, is impact versus likelihood. It’s likelihood” (Participant C).

 The Covid-19 crisis was difficult to plan for precisely because of its “completely unprecedented” nature (Participant A). The Crisis in Culture survey data confirms that many organisations had not considered a pandemic as likely. Although 71% of respondents said their organisation had an Emergency Management Plan (EMP) or a Business Continuity Plan (BCP), only 17% said they included a pandemic response. Only 10% of respondents had ever received any information about managing a pandemic at their organisation.

For many, attention to the sorts of crises that had happened before, such as fires, thefts and floods had engrained a specific view of crisis management which, for Covid-19, seemed suddenly insufficient

One of the main reasons pandemics haven’t been seriously considered as a crisis possibility is that for many museum and heritage sites, there have been more pressing concerns. For larger sites which regularly attract crowds, the rise of terrorist incidents in museums and visitor attractions has understandably been an area of focus. For example, for this manager of a large city centre attraction:

“If you look at a percentage of things we’d look at, we’d look at terrorist attack, fire and theft or break in more than we would pandemic… Usually what would happen is that you’re more inclined to do something when something’s happened right away” (Participant E).

For many, attention to the sorts of crises that had happened before, such as fires, thefts and floods had engrained a specific view of crisis management which, for Covid-19, seemed suddenly insufficient.

“That’s really almost my fundamental observation here; that most of the crises we’ve prepared for are probably happening in the space of an hour or two hours… and hey, guess what? This is nothing like that… And it’s started, and it’s not over, and we don’t have a clear indication of what the future looks like” (Participant C).

“What we’ve got in Covid is that it’s completely different. It is like a war. Because there’s no end to it at the moment, and it’s a dynamic situation where priorities change on a fairly regular basis” (Participant F).

Participant F also expanded on the evolving nature of crises, comparing the changing situation now to how in recent years, counter-terrorism measures have had to focus more on lone wolf style attacks, such as the machete attack at the Louvre in 2017:

“And of course, before… it was all to do with IRA bomb threats… so, I think it’s interesting if you take a sort of medium to long term view how cultural organisations… have responded, has considered what major incidents are, you know, they have needed to change the structure of what they’re talking about quite radically by the nature of the threat, which is obvious, but actually shows you that you need to keep reviewing those plans” (Participant F).

In other words, when likelihoods change, so does crisis management practice. It is therefore likely that the Covid-19 pandemic represents, like the lone terrorism actors, another radical shift in how crises are anticipated and managed. This goes some way to explaining the lack of foresight in dealing with the current crisis; however, it also highlights how significant the response to this first instance of that shift will be in setting the pattern for future incidents.

However, a pandemic is not the only thing that can cause an organisational shutdown. Outside of the UK, this is a more common occurrence. In her article for Apollo, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the US National Gallery of Art explained that due to not uncommon budget stalemates leading to federal shutdowns, government funded organisations in the US are more practiced in sudden, temporary closures:

“With several shutdowns in our history, the team at the National Gallery has a lot of expertise in temporarily closing the museum to the staff and public. We had already drafted our lists of staff positions and functions that are essential to daily operations when the facility is closed to the public”.

In the UK, this experience is absent. As with the more specific pandemic issue, this has led to a lack of planning. When asked if any preparation had been done for an organisational shut down, responses tended to follow a similar pattern:

“No. Never… I don’t think museums shut for a serious period of time, even during the war. I don’t know. You know, so I don’t think it’s ever actually happened” (Participant H).

“No, none. I think it’s very much learn on the job, case by case, as crises emerge” (Participant J).

Lack of prior experience and the unthinkable nature of a global pandemic, then, were strong factors in the lack of adequate preparation for Covid-19. As Participant A states:

“You couldn’t have imagined it!” (Participant A).

But how accurate is this characterisation of the crisis? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s timeline of events, the first cases of Covid-19 were reported on 31 December 2019. On 30 January 2020, WHO declared Covid-19 “a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).”

According to the Culture in Crisis survey, the earliest date where closing a museum or heritage site down because of the pandemic was discussed was 4th February, a mere 5 days later after the WHO declaration. However, this respondent was something of an outlier, with the majority of respondents reporting it had first been discussed on or around the 18th March. In fact, three respondents claimed that that the first day the issue was discussed was the day they closed to the public (Culture in Crisis survey).

Some organisations did adjust risk registers accordingly. One Head of Visitor Experience at a national museum noted that:

“Just before Covid I did up-weight it, in January, as we saw things develop; so we moved it up” (Participant G).

Some organisations also started scenario planning in earnest as they saw the situation develop:

“As soon as even a hint of something happening, or a hint of change came our direction, we did sort of contingency plan and you know, we did go right, let’s imagine that this will definitely happen, how will we respond?” (Participant  D)

However, there were also examples of no action being taken even when the risk had been identified:

“We had not sat in any meetings prior to [closing], where we had said, ok, let’s go through these scenarios. Scenario A will be that we close on Friday, Scenario B will be… and here are our plans, according to each scenario. There was no planning” (Participant C).

So, it can be seen that overall there was a lack of early identification and corresponding action that, if present, might have assisted organisations in being more prepared for the shutdown. As it was, survey respondents selected an average value of 5 when asked to rate their preparedness from 1 to 10 (Culture in Crisis Survey). Possible reasons for this include a bias towards remaining open, and a lack of clear guidance from Government agencies. Both of these will be explored in later blog posts. First, it is important to understand how prepared for action heritage organisations might have been, if the risk of the pandemic had been identified earlier. As one participant commented:

“I don’t think it makes any difference to have something on your risk register if you don’t have the capability of coping with it” (Participant I).

Merely having a plan does not necessarily translate into action. For good crisis management plans to work, it is understood that employees need to receive practical and regular training on their contents

As noted above, 71% of survey respondents reported that their organisation had a crisis management plan (Culture in Crisis survey). During the interviews it was identified that organisations that did not have a plan tended to be smaller independent sites. When asked if they had a crisis management plan or emergency plan of any kind, interview participants from smaller or newer organisations tended to have similar responses:

“No, not so much, I don’t think” (Participant J).

“No. If I’m honest, at the actual museum service itself is quite in its infancy, because it only came into being three years ago” (Participant D).

However, merely having a plan does not necessarily translate into action. For good crisis management plans to work, it is understood that employees need to receive practical and regular training on their contents. Despite this, there was a wide discrepancy in the amount of general crisis management training reported in different organisations. For those who have taken part in training, often the scale of the incidents being prepared for was too small or isolated to be relevant to Covid-19. When incidents which did have more far-reaching impact were raised in table-top or live exercises, issues raised were often not followed through:

“We haven’t prepared enough by doing enough relevant tabletops or exercises. I think we’ve done one in my time that was on a major scale like this… and it didn’t just affect us, it affected our suppliers, other businesses, transport, you know, something on a scale of what we’re seeing now. But it’s the only time I’ve sat in something where that was ever raised or tackled, and the bottom line was, of course, we couldn’t solve it” (Participant C).

Despite the unpreparedness of many, there are clear examples where previous experience assisted individuals and organisations in managing some aspects of the crisis. For example, for one participant, regular seasonal shutdowns and associated near misses meant that some of the processes and procedures needed for lockdown were already in place:

“We shut down for Christmas and New Year, for three days, and so we already have a system established where we get one or two members of the security or technical staff going in every day of those three days just to check that there are no leaks or whatever, because actually the first year over that Christmas there was a frost induced leak in the roof and you know, we caught it just in time” (Participant F)

For a small independent outdoor attraction, bad weather in February/March 2020 had left staff well-practised in adapting public communication:

“When we closed during the storms that was quite a good learning curve, because we closed down for two days… so changing the website, changing the voicemail service, creating the signs, changing the signs… pretty much those were the things we did when we closed in March” (Participant J)

The final point to be considered is what the staff themselves consider to be lessons learned. In the survey, respondents were asked what additional preparation would have been useful. The two most common answers were more preparation of crisis management structures, and planning for site shutdown (Culture in Crisis survey). This clearly highlights the two-fold requirement for successful crisis management; the thinking and detailed planning of processes is useful, but most important is the need for clear decision making structures so that unanticipated incidents can be managed.

In summary, it can be seen from the above that there was a wide range of levels of general preparedness for crisis across different heritage organisations, and across most, a lack of anticipation and planning for Covid-19 and the associated shutdown. However, there has also been an acknowledgement across the sector that previous experience has helped support aspects of crisis management, and a clear realisation of the sort of planning and training that must now happen to ensure organisations are better prepared for next time.

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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