— Jennifer Thomas, director of the Virginia Association of Museums
For a lot of museums, their primary attendance audience is kids in school. So how do they replace that? How do they continue to reach kids?
Museums and visitor attraction centers were presented with myriad challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the question remains as to when certain challenges will subside and which ones will last into the post-pandemic world.
While much of the world is still grappling with variants and vaccine scarcity and/or reluctancy, many business sectors have already started making plans for re-adjustment and re-opening. For many, talks of “returning to normal” are over and preparing for “the new normal” is now a higher priority.
The same can be said for museums across the U.S. and globally, as many of the challenges that COVID presented may not subside any time soon. Jennifer Thomas, director of the Virginia Association of Museums (VAM), details which areas affected by the pandemic she sees as ongoing issues moving forward below. Luckily, there are also creative solutions available for each one.
When COVID hit, museums had to shut down entirely on a few days’ notice. Most didn’t think they would be closed for more than a couple of weeks at most, which unfortunately turned into a full year, if not more.
“I don’t think any of us really had a premonition that it would close things down so thoroughly for so long. We thought it might be a few weeks,” said Thomas of her staff and the 3,000+ members of VAM.
As this time of complete shut down went on, it became clear that museums around the world needed to adapt and adjust in order to stay afloat. Many re-evaluated and redistributed their resources to focus on digital strategy and engagement, implementing solutions such as virtual tours, broadcasts and webinars, and social media.
Now that things are gradually but cautiously reopening, museums are having internal discussions about how to find the balance between safe, in-person experiences and the new digital efforts they’ve put in place. The digital efforts have expanded their audiences, but the on-site exhibits are the mainstay of the industry.
“People say they want us to keep this virtual content going, but lately, each time we put out a new virtual event we’ve seen smaller and smaller numbers,” said Thomas. “We’re all still trying to find the balance.”
In the spirit of finding the balance between digital and on-site, a few key areas of the museum experience that have experienced significant and lasting changes are field trips, interactive displays, educational events, and touring. We go through each below with
Challenge: No More Field Trips
Before the pandemic, a primary source of community engagement and revenue for museums was facilitating field trips with local schools. With many schools going entirely remote for the 2020 to 2021 school year, that entire segment of museum strategy was taken away.
Now, even though many schools in the U.S. are reopening, they are cautious to bring the students outside of the controlled, healthy, safe environment of the school itself to reduce liability and avoid a potential school outbreak and shutdown.
“The biggest, most unpredictable and lasting change from this is probably going to be school field trips,” said Thomas. “Right now, there are no bus drivers to get kids to a field trip even if they wanted to take children out of the classroom.”
Studies from the American Psychology Association have shown that the year in lockdown on so-called “zoom school” was disadvantageous for most school-aged children, and the lack of enrichment they receive from these outside initiatives and partnerships with organizations like museums is a huge missing element. But many school administrators do not see it worth the risk just yet.
“Museums are going to have to reinvent how they engage with school kids and teachers,” said Thomas. “There are daily changes happening with schools now, along with discussions about the future of teaching and how they’re going to make all of this happen again. Museums are not going to get 125 kids coming into their museum at one time, doing the traditional tour and activity again. I’m not sure that’s ever coming back.”
Solution: Strategic Partnerships with Schools
“For a lot of museums, their primary attendance audience is kids in school. So how do they replace that? How do they continue to reach kids?” Thomas asked.
Some solutions she suggested included going into the schools to talk with them, professional development for teachers to present the museum material, creating special resource packets mailed directly to the school and implementing unique digital initiatives just for children. All of these meet the children where they are to keep things as safe as possible for now.
Meeting children where they are is arguably easiest digitally. Most school-age children today have grown up with technology, and many are so tech savvy that they can pick up the navigation of a new app or website without formal instruction.
Creating a digital experience specifically for schools is easy to do on the STQRY platform, allowing museums to set up virtual tours, directories of your inventory for them to explore, interactive elements like games, and more that can suit the museum’s unique needs.
This can come in the form of an web app experience so that the students and teachers can access the app on school computers. It can also become a revenue source by being compensated from the school for providing this platform.
Challenge: Sanitary Interactive Displays
Pre-pandemic, many museums put in interactive kiosks at their displays to present more information digitally and keep visitors of all ages engaged. Now, in the context of the pandemic, touch screens are not something that visitors are likely to interact with considering the sanitary limitations of these devices.
However, kiosk content and having that digital supplement to the exhibit experience is undoubtedly advantageous, so the question remains as to how to get this content to visitors in a sanitary way.
“My best friend is an elementary school teacher and when she came to visit me, I took her to the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown. They have fantastic kiosk materials,” said Thomas. “She was in awe of the kiosk content and wondered whether she could get access to these materials on a website so that she could use them in her classroom.”
Solution: Accessible Apps
One way to increase access to museums’ collections and content is with native or web apps. These can contain the same information that the kiosks on-site have, but allow users to access it from anywhere, including classrooms.
This also solves the on-site kiosk sanitation issue. Instead of touching the screen that other visitors have touched, visitors can use the app on their individual devices to get the extra contextual material formerly provided on kiosks. This COVID-friendly solution solves both the school issue and the sanitation issue.
Challenge: Limited In-Person Touring
Another obvious and overarching challenge of the pandemic was the limited touring capacity. Even as restrictions began to gradually lift, social distancing measures were still in effect in many parts of the country, so group tours were not happening.
Additionally, for many historic sites and smaller museums, the docents who guided many of those tours were in the higher-risk group in terms of COVID danger. Elderly and immune-compromised people needed to be extra careful not to contract the disease, as it was more deadly to these groups than others.
With that in mind, in-person touring was virtually non-existent for most of the pandemic, making the overall museum experience potentially less engaging and informative without the help of a guide and group.
Solution: Virtual Offerings
One way that many museums addressed this challenge was by implementing virtual touring offers during the pandemic. There are multiple ways to do this, from a matterport style of digital tour to a simple video of a docent bringing the camera around the site.
As museums reopen, many are trying to find a balance between keeping in-person touring safe and relying on virtual offers. “There has been some conversation about, not so much closing the museum as a whole again, but do they need to go back to timed tours and limited capacity as surges or variants come through.”
This uncertainty is why having the virtual options and offerings in place will be imperative to success moving forward, even if we ever get to a post-COVID world. Having digital solutions like an app or at least virtual web platforms like STQRY provides will allow museums to pivot if they need to as unforeseen circumstances arise in rapidly changing cultural and societal contexts.
Challenge: Education and Networking Initiatives
Another major revenue source for museums was educational offerings, such as expert guest talks, lectures, seminars, networking events, and more. As indoor gatherings were forbidden for months, and now limited capacity is generally preferred unless attendees are fully vaccinated, facilitating these high-level events is an ongoing challenge.
A huge pull for museums was bringing together a niche community around their area of expertise, whether that be art, history, science, or the number of other areas that museums around the country offer. These learning and community bonding experiences provided a unique opportunity for visitors and experts to share their knowledge and connect with others. Fortunately, there are still ways to do this “new normal.”
Solution: Virtual Webinars
Many museums began facilitating these events on Zoom after it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t lifting in a few weeks after it initially shut everything down. Zoom meetings allow private chats and conversations to happen, broadcasts to large numbers of people to go out live, and much more.
While most saw high engagement at first, that slowly subsided as “Zoom fatigue” set in. With so many different organizations, groups, workplaces, and schools using Zoom meetings to do their events, many people lost interest over time. However, this wasn’t necessarily true for lectures or expert guest talks.
“People tend to be more intentional about attending a webinar where they’re learning something as opposed to a chat or networking event,” said Thomas. “It’s too easy during those Zoom chats to turn your camera off and not be involved.”
The effective digital facilitation of networking events is still a challenge, but webinars can be an incredibly effective method of maintaining the revenue and engagement that comes with bringing in experts in the field for museums.
Lasting Solutions for Long Term Engagement
To stay engaged with visitors long term, the museum industry, along with most other visitor attraction sites, need to implement creative solutions both digitally and in person. Finding that balance can be tricky depending on your existing resources and structures, but it’s important to move forward into this new post-pandemic era with strong measures in place to address the needs and concerns of your visitors.
Thomas agreed saying, “I think things will change and never go back to exactly the way they were, but I also think the technology provides really good solutions. If we can slightly adapt it to meet new needs, I think it’s staying around.”
If you're looking to implement long-term digital solutions to reinvent how you share your stories, try the STQRY Builder for free or contact us directly.