The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated establishments across industries and all around the world. Aside from disinfectant manufacturers, virtually no business or institution has come out of this crisis unscathed. Most have been forced to shut down completely or move to remote work, including the museum industry.
With unemployment at astronomical rates, consumers’ priorities have shifted. Spending an afternoon at their local art exhibit, for example, has become a luxury few can afford – both monetarily and in terms of physical safety.
“Museums are being asked to show how they are valuable to the communities that they serve,” said Zinnia Willits, Executive Director at Southeastern Museums Conference. “That virtual component will continue to play a role in the evolution of museums in terms of being able to have real impact wider than just those that can come to their space.”
Many museums are hopeful that the new vaccine and better treatment methods will allow for a major comeback in the coming months, but the IMF states that global economic growth is at its lowest point since the Great Depression, and predicts a very long, gradual recovery period over the next five years.
While some museums have come up with creative ways to engage with visitors virtually and make up for this massive loss in revenue, the industry overall is still struggling to stay relevant as we move further into a new decade and a new socially distant and technologically advanced reality.
The State Of The Museum Industry
Currently, the market size of the museum industry is about $12 billion – down from $14.7 billion in 2019, which was the highest it’s been since 2010. This 17.5% decrease is significant, signaling the loss of a decade’s worth of growth.
Overall resources for the museum industry took a major hit as well, even though some institutions have endowment funds they can safely rely on in a crisis like this. “If you're completely endowment-based, which not many are, you're probably doing okay, like the markets are,” said Willits.
But many of these endowment-backed museums also rely on ticket sales, gift shop sales, special event income, and more to keep their revenue going. These streams of income based on in-person activity have suffered. The result is a decrease in employment and thus a limitation of resources to effectively implement creative solutions to the problems the pandemic poses.
Even if vaccines quickly become widely available and establishments across the country and around the world are safe to reopen at full capacity, it is unlikely that the museum industry will completely recover within the next year.
“The statistic I hear over and over again is that most museums that have reopened are seeing just 30% of visitation that they would have normally seen,” said Willits.
In areas of the U.S. where social distancing measures have been loosened and museums have been allowed to reopen, it’s not surprising that they aren’t seeing the ticket sales bounce back immediately.
European museums have already experienced this dip, bringing in just about a third of the traffic they normally would. “We foresee huge losses for the next few years, and just a very slow return to normal. We expect that in 2024 we might be back to our normal visitor numbers. Financially, it’s quite a disaster,” said Lidewij de Koekkoek, Director of Rembrandt House.
However, government funded institutions in Europe have been able to stay afloat throughout this crisis, even during complete shutdown. The difference in the U.S. is the lack of public funding, which makes decreases in foot traffic even more detrimental.
Considering the consistent attempts by the Trump administration to cut funds for the National Endowment for the Arts – or eliminate it entirely – art institutions across the U.S. faced a much more bleak outlook in terms of recovery this year than European counterparts did.
Luckily, these attempts to eliminate the NEA have largely been blocked by Congress, and museum workers in the U.S. are hopeful that the Biden administration will uphold, or even increase, NEA funding. However, this is not guaranteed and it is always safer to have multiple income streams.
There are currently approximately 9,500 establishments in the U.S. museum industry, and the industry employs about 94,700 workers in total. This is down 11% from 2019 (when the industry employed 106,800 people) after steady growth since 2010. This is also the lowest museum employment has been since 2013.
“As we’re hopefully in this last surge before the vaccine, further reduction in visitation is going to likely necessitate more cuts,” said Willits.
This will hit museums hard, considering that the average museum in the U.S. employs just 10 people. “One of the great things about working in a museum, even if you have a small staff, is that it’s still a staff. It's been great to watch how the museum staff have risen to the challenge and explored people that might have a skill set that wasn't necessarily being utilized in the past,” said Willits. “The support network that museums have internally is a good thing.”
While employment for the industry overall may be down, this tight-knit culture combined with the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed many employees to wear many hats and flex their creative problem-solving skills, most of which have involved digital solutions.
The Necessity of Digital Experiences
Creative digital solutions have driven success for museums throughout 2020. From virtual tours to webinars to social media live chats with curators and more, it has become abundantly clear that digital integration is imperative to the survival of the museum industry in the coming years.
Museums are inherently rooted in upholding the past, as their entire mission is the preservation and exhibition of historical objects. This means that there has not been as much value placed on technological innovation in this sector as compared to other industries.
However, the pandemic has proven that it is possible to stay rooted in the past while investing in the future. “It's been interesting to watch how social media and technology have integrated into this into all of this need for change, and how different museums are using it to continue to be relevant,” said Willits.
Investment in digital experiences marks a major shift for the museum industry, even if it comes only at the point of absolute necessity. It will simply be impossible to maintain an ongoing, positive relationship with museum-goers without digital solutions in the post-pandemic era.
Museums that had digital solutions in place before COVID thrived during this pandemic. They didn’t have to lose as much in revenue because they knew they could monetize these digital experiences, even if they were free before the pandemic hit. Many potential patrons were looking for ways to support their favorite institutions when they shut down, making an existing digital relationship key for creating a new income stream.
“That's another weakness; if you didn't already have somebody on your staff whose job it was to do social media, or who at least was savvy with that, you're a little bit on the backfoot,” said Willits.
And many museums didn’t – especially smaller ones whose resources were already somewhat limited.
Interactive digital experiences like apps, live video, virtual field trips, and matterports, are now necessary for engaging the upcoming generation of digital natives who learned how to unlock an iPhone before learning their ABCs.
Furthermore, considering the aging population of docents in the museum industry, virtual tours are now also essential to keep them and other at-risk museum staff and guests safe from COVID-19 infection. “The virtual component in some ways adds a measure of equity in terms of who can access the art and artifacts in terms of programming,” said Willits.
Either way, museums and other establishments in general will have to have some kind of digital engagement strategy in place to let visitors know that they’re ready to welcome them back in the future.
2021 Projections and Beyond
With all of this in mind, digital experiences will need to be integrated as a crucial part of the museum experience moving forward – not just an emergency contingency plan – in order to stay relevant in the coming post-COVID era.
Once revenue stabilizes, museums will likely invest more of their resources into digital strategy and storytelling, creating new and innovative ways to engage the public through immersive apps, comprehensive websites, engaging social media, and more.
It will also become more common to monetize these experiences to bring in new income streams never before possible. At the moment, many museums are offering digital alternatives for free in hopes of maintaining relationships with customers to bring foot traffic back in, but the digital solutions themselves will become valuable as a standalone experience as time goes on.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced a National Leadership Grant award for their Digital Empowerment - Technology and Digital Media Training for Small Museums project. This substantial nationwide effort to help smaller museums build digital media assets signals a major shift toward industry-wide technological innovation and integration into the museum experience.
Although 2020 was a difficult year for the museum industry, it does seem to have created more positive than negative trends to look forward to in the future.