What more can we do?

Management Consultants Fourth Street highlight how responding to COVID-19 demands constant creative thinking, not least as museums are perhaps more important to our communities than ever.

With the support of Cultural Recovery Grant funding, most museums had started on the road back from the first national lockdown. Now they are dealing with a second. The path ahead will be difficult. The sad truth is that some organisations will not survive. Beyond the painful process of redundancies, museum Boards will face tough decisions about what to do with the heritage they hold in trust. Transferring collections, mergers and consolidation, disposals and liquidation are all on the table, even if these measures seemed unfathomable just 12 months ago.

Those that live to fight another day will need to adapt to a new reality of fewer visitors, skeleton staff, heightened anxiety, and the possibility of further lockdowns. Part of that evolution will require changes in organisational culture. We must stop thinking of museums as physical buildings full of ‘stuff ’ and think of them more as providers of valuable community services. Museums connect people, they provoke dialogue, promote healing and provide hope, identity and sense of place. That collection of services is needed now more than ever.

The first lockdown illustrated the stark difference between those museums that retreated behind a sombre website asking for donations and those that sprang into action: collecting lockdown stories and mementos, producing education packs to support home-schooling families, and mining their collections for lessons from the past to help us make sense of an uncertain future.

The digital museum must be a priority now. Websites must be lively, informative and interactive, not just a list of opening times and admission prices. If prioritised and given the importance it demands, even the smallest museum can produce a digital experience of substance, creating a direct connection to audiences.

The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum is an instructive example – operating with limited resources but with an exceptional collection and dedicated staff, it has produced one of the best digital galleries on the web, full of audio, video, scholarship and resources for teachers, researchers and health care workers. The physical gallery is a shop unit in St John’s Wood. But the website is a TV station, a radio station, a school, a library, a research institute, a forum, a health care hub and – of course – a museum.

Museums can do more to remind people of their value to communities. Retailers have been hit just as hard by these lockdowns. High streets are on their knees and town centres are struggling. Museums can help to activate these places, by meeting people in the streets or by repurposing vacant units.

What can we do for local schools who are grappling with their own social-distancing challenges? Can the museum ‘pop up’ in the parks and public squares that we’ve come to treasure as COVID-safe space? Can we make better use of our own outdoor space? If you have the outdoor space, use it – your community needs it.

Let’s face it – for the foreseeable future, our buildings are our biggest liability. However much we adapt space and sanitise surfaces, people will be anxious about spending time indoors. Our biggest assets, by contrast, are that deep well of trust that people still place in museums and the unique skillsets we’ve developed over the years: providing perspective, telling stories, listening, organising, marshalling volunteers, engaging communities, and creating fun, inclusive and welcoming environments. We need to think of ways to harness those skills and put them to use on-line and off-site, while we temporarily shut down the building.

Be assured, visitors and audiences will remember and reward those museums that – in the darkest moments – didn’t just ask for donations, but also asked: what more can we do?

Fourth Street management consultants have specialised in the arts, cultural and heritage sectors for more than 20 years, providing robust commercial advice to help museums realise their vision and achieve long-term financial sustainability.