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.

The very fact that their organisation is being threatened has inspired a period of reflection that may be an opportunity to rethink museums and heritage sites for the better

In The Great Crisis Wash-up, I mentioned that crisis can be a double-edged sword, bringing with it both opportunity and threat.

As Covid-19 continues to threaten the very existence of some museums and heritage sites, it can be hard for staff affected to find the silver lining. However, in my interviews I found that not only have some opportunities grown out of this crisis, but that for many participants, the very fact that their organisation is being threatened has inspired a period of reflection that may be an opportunity to rethink museums and heritage sites for the better.

One of the most obvious opportunities for museums during Covid-19 was contemporary collecting. A good example of this is the Collecting Covid programme at the Museum of London, and there are many others. Interview participants also mentioned this contemporary activity, particularly in relation to the environmental benefits of lockdown:

 “The other thing that our colleagues in Natural Sciences are particularly interested in is the environmental effect of not so much transport, not so much pollution and everything else, which increasingly is a bit of an interesting news story. And trying to do some Citizen Science over that as well. So, I think that hopefully will… be a legacy” (Participant F).

“So, where possible they’re trying to make sure that we are keeping records and collecting, definitely. And they’ve been doing a whole lot of outreach type stuff where they can, about what’s going on in the garden” (Participant H).

Another opportunity was the new focus on digital engagement:

 “I think one of the big things for us is that with the digital engagement side of things we’re being forced, in a way, to be digitally engaging more than we normally have done. We will now permanently keep a digital resource aspect to every project and every programme” (Participant D).

“And the other good stuff is digital, isn’t it? I mean, people have talked for years about digital and not really knowing what to do with it” (Participant G).

For these participants, the focus on digital was something that organisations had always intended to more fully resource, and Covid-19 allowed this to happen more quickly than it would have otherwise.

Some people sense a new-found internal respect for operational teams, given the huge effort by these departments in closing down and reopening museums, and the newly high-risk nature of work on the frontline:

 “I really do hope that…really…the operational front of house people need to be acknowledged. Not like the NHS heroes, but sort of like that, but – the people who actually know” (Participant F).

“I do think people have learnt and are learning about the importance of the operation at the moment, by which I mean the front facing day to day activity, and I think it’s because it’s so often taken for granted because it all runs ok… I’m finding we’re getting listened to a lot more” (Participant G).

Whether this opportunity for the operational teams to gain more recognition is capitalised on in the coming months remains to be seen.

In terms of practical opportunities, the people I interviewed placed most significance on new ways of working, with video conferencing and home working arrangements opening doors that have remained stubbornly closed for years:

 “Because I think a lot of people maybe have found out that they can do a lot of their job from home, or there’s a different way of doing it for them and the organisation” (Participant A).

“Usually, my team work across sites… you can go through a week, and if you’re at the wrong site, you don’t see anyone for a week, whereas now even just with Teams, if someone sends a good morning message and everyone gets it, it just feels more joined up, so I definitely feel we’re going to continue with that” (Participant G).

“I think there definitely will be much more of a tolerance to people wanting to work from home, because we’ve really proved that we can do that, so I think there will be very few people that will be in 5 days a week after this is finished” (Participant H).

Despite these opportunities and benefits, there can be no denying that the Covid-19 crisis has had a profoundly negative impact on many museum and heritage sites. One participant summed up the issue:

“One of the big questions being asked is, really, do we have the right business model for this sector after years and years of being entrepreneurial, and you look at the continent and they’re ready to open in completely different ways, because they have much more state funding. I don’t feel qualified to answer that, and also, independent museums still would sit outside of that, but that’s a really good question to come out of this for the future” (Participant I).

Whilst the sector grapples with this question, short-term financial decisions have to be made. In the short term, this means the scaling back of activity. In many of the interviews, there was evidence organisations intended to stop or cut back programmes because of Covid-19:

“We’re in the middle of a HLF funding application which… may not go through because of this virus, so I think that’s an opportunity lost” (Participant J).

“The big thing of course is whether people are going to be travelling to conferences and going internationally for field work. We’ve pretty much lost this season for that” (Participant B).

However, for some, the need to concentrate on the financial viability of organisations was an opportunity to refocus effort in a much needed way:

“We’ve become involved in a lot of things that don’t make any money. And I think maybe one of the lessons is: most businesses work on profit and loss, and we never have” (Participant B).

“A lot of the curators who sit around the table with me, you can see them cringing when I make any reference to money or the need to have a business case for what we’re doing. And I think that needs to be absolutely kicked out because, I’m sorry, you know, the days and the world of museums for the sake of museums has completely left the building” (Participant D).

“There’s a focus on what’s required… what are the opportunities that we need to focus on, what makes sense, what’s sold well, for example, in the shop, or what educational activities are we offering, what’s always sold out, why are we offering activities for that sake of it that aren’t always necessarily sold out. So, I think there’s been a refocus which has worked well” (Participant J).

There is also recognition that as well as making some internal conversations easier, the financial plight of the heritage world has made the charity message more prominent externally:

“The one opportunity we’ve probably got is to get the charity message out there a bit more… you know, we’ve managed to get pictures in the Times, an we’ve had pictures in loads of local media… so potentially, people may know more about [site name] now than they did when we were merrily open before” (Participant B).

“The other thing that I’ve noticed for [museum name] is how – I mean, we knew it anyway, but – it really is how much people absolutely love the institution and are being very supportive” (Participant H).

Generally, museum and heritage staff found that their work and sites were not considered essential

Therefore, the very threat that Covid-19 has brought to the heritage sector has also provided some opportunities to help operators manage it.

On a more profound level, there is evidence that participants are questioning the very purpose of their institutions. The question of the role of museums during Covid-19 was highlighted by an article by American author and former museum director, Nina Simon, during lockdown:

“In some cases, rapid response is phenomenal and highly relevant. I’m thrilled that art museums are donating their personal protective equipment to healthcare workers. I’m amazed by historic sites that are offering their facilities for hospital beds and food distribution centres… These forms of rapid response are timely and meaningful. But I had to hunt for the above examples” (Simon, 2020).

There were some examples of this type of response in the UK, but as Simon highlights, they were isolated. Some museums did give PPE to hospitals and care homes, as reported in The Art Newspaper. One survey respondent talked about turning their café into a grocery shop for the local area (Culture in Crisis survey). But generally, museum and heritage staff found that their work and sites were not considered essential, as Participant F articulates:

“The only use for the [museum name] in the emergency plan is as an emergency morgue… you know, it’s got that big marble entrance hall. That’s the only use it’s going to be put to in terms of the local emergency planners” (Participant F).

This feeling of redundancy led to some participants questioning the role of their museums or heritage sites:

“I’m already in conversations with people saying, well, why would people want to come here after reopening? Should we be asking that question this far on in our organisational lives? I’m not sure we should” (Participant C).

“I think it’s a refocussing on why we’re actually there. What we’re doing for our visitors” (Participant G).

For one participant, digital upskilling of their team, and a problem created by the pandemic combined to offer a unique opportunity for the university museum service to play a key role:

“So right now, the University is planning to welcome back on to campus only 20-25% of the student body in September and that will probably remain the case for that academic year. So there will be a lot of students who will most likely at some point come to [city name] but it won’t be for quite a while. But we want them to feel a connection with the city… So, twice a month, two of the [online] events will be very much a [city name] based heritage attraction or heritage site or library or something like that, so that by the students taking part in that, but the time they arrive in [city name] they will be familiar with at least some of the sites and attractions that are out with the University bubble” (Participant D).

For most, reimagining purpose won’t be as simple. There is evidence, however, that especially after the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer, the right questions are being asked:

“How do we tell our stories differently? Who are we partnering with? What skills do we need in the organisation? How can we be the best organisation we can be on the other side of this? That’s the opportunity for everyone to think differently; or to develop the thinking they’ve already engaged in, but now it’s more urgent … you know, all of this stuff has happened, and it’s happened as badly as it’s happened in this country for very structural reasons, and can we be different now?” (Participant I).

Like many crises before this, it can be seen that Covid-19 poses significant threat, but also offers a raft of opportunities. Alongside practical opportunities such as digitisation and news ways of working, more profound changes are taking place. Whether those changes are successful in positioning museums and heritage sites as contributors to a more equal society remains to be seen.

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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