Essays

How the Pandemic Has Highlighted a Crisis in Contemporary Museums

In researching three Indiana institutions, it is clear that the lockdown has exacerbated trends in the museum field such as a lack of relevance to the general public and increasing reliance on private philanthropy.

Exterior view of the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington (2020) (courtesy the Eskenazi Museum; ©Brad Feinknopf/OTTO)

What does the word “museum” make you think of? For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind may be an art museum, perhaps an encyclopedic museum, a massive institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art or the British Museum or the Louvre, or maybe the American Museum of Natural History or the museums that make up the Smithsonian. But museums come in a kaleidoscope of sizes and subject matters.

Whatever their type, all have been affected deeply — like the rest of us — by COVID-19 and this year’s economic lockdown. To get an idea of how this worked on a local level, in addition to my own research, I spoke with staff members of three very different area museums here in south-central Indiana: the Eskenazi Museum of Art (one of the museums at Indiana University Bloomington); WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology, a science museum in Bloomington geared especially toward children (and the rare museum in Bloomington that is not part of the university); and the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum in Columbus.

Exterior view of the Eskanazi Museum of art at Indiana University, Bloomington (2020) (courtesy the Eskenazi Museum; ©Brad Feinknopf/OTTO)

One thing that these museums share, not surprisingly, is a sense of uncertainty. The Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum had originally planned a “soft” reopening on July 9 (admitting the public only on Thursdays through Saturdays) but changed this to August 1, only on Saturdays, and for more limited hours. (The museum has since delayed its opening even further, as the state of Indiana has extended its reopening process.) WonderLab has a provisional reopening plan for early August, but it is not yet publicly announced, and is subject to change. (Aleisha Kropf, their marketing and communications director, told me that it is “quite possible” that the opening would be delayed.) For the Eskenazi Museum, lockdown came just months into reopening after a three-year closure for renovation. Museums are playing reopenings, and everything else, by ear.

The Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum in Columbus (2020) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Each of the museums I spoke to is funded differently, and the lockdown has affected the funding of each museum in very different ways. About half of WonderLab’s funding comes from donations, the other half from “earned revenue.” Some of their biggest revenue generators, such as summer camp, have had to be canceled. Neither the Eskenazi nor Atterbury-Bakalar charges for admission. Base funding for the Eskenazi is provided by Indiana University, and during the lockdown the university has cut that funding by 5%. Atterbury-Bakalar is funded mainly by a stipend from the Columbus Municipal Airport Board of Aviation.

Not surprisingly, employees at WonderLab have been most deeply affected by the pandemic, with part-time staff laid off and permanent staff having hours reduced; however, the museum has received a series of grants and loans, including a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan (in the range of $150k-$350k) which has covered staff salaries and allowed all full-time staff to return to normal hours. The Eskenazi Museum has not had to lay off or furlough any employees. Atterbury-Bakalar is staffed entirely by volunteers — since they are mostly retired, they are particularly cautious about returning to the museum.

Both WonderLab and the Eskenazi have been driven by the lockdown to focus more on virtual aspects of their museums. WonderLab has seen a very positive response to their virtual programs, including attention from out-of-state residents. The Eskenazi’s focus on virtual aspects includes not only programs but its online collections. Both museums are considering the role of technology in their long-term plans, and how virtual offerings might become more significant after the pandemic.

Exterior view of WonderLab science museum in Bloomington (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

More broadly, all of the museums emphasized the need for change moving forward. “Our executive director asked if anyone could think of a single thing that hasn’t been rethought or redone to cope with COVID,” WonderLab’s Kropf told me. “Someone suggested that the doors were the same. But no, they are not. It made us all laugh. The way we do every single thing on every level has changed. Even the way we open the doors.”

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What does the future hold for museums more generally? The hanging question over what public life will look like in the near future can only exacerbate the discouraging trends that have been in place for some time.

Let’s consider art museums: Over 50 years ago, Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel demonstrated how European art museums exist at a remove from the daily lives of most people, that the “love of art” is tied closely to the upper class. In the decades since, we’ve seen attendance rise with the emergence of blockbuster exhibitions — and then fall again to pre-blockbuster levels after the economic downturn of 2007–08. Even with improved numbers over the past few years, in 2017 only 23.7% of American adults reported visiting an art museum or gallery in the previous year. Art museums continue to lie outside of most people’s experience. Surveys consistently show that museum attendance is as highly correlated with both education and income as it was in the 1960s. Relatively few people can afford to go to museums, or at least large museums in major cities. And, not surprisingly, art museums do not seem to be relevant to the lives of a majority of people.

How much does this matter to museums? With admissions making up a small percentage of museum revenue, and government funding decreasing, many museums have increasingly relied on philanthropy. When the Met established a mandatory admission fee for out-of-state visitors in 2018, the statements of the president and CEO reflected that relative importance: Visitors were unfairly criticized for not paying their way while wealthy donors were praised as “our generous contributors.” We might ask whether most of the public needs museums. We might also ask, with museum attendance making such a small part of revenue: Do they need us?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur (April 2012) (photograph by Jean-Christophe Benoist via Wikimedia Commons)

In reality, museums merely reflect the massive inequalities in society at large. After the pandemic, museums may represent an even greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands. The American Alliance of Museums has repeatedly warned that roughly a third of museums may never reopen. Almost half of those that will reopen expect to do so with reduced staff. A study of the arts and culture sector of New York City suggests that the revenue of smaller institutions has been disproportionately affected by the lockdown. Inequality is also reflected in the handling of loans for museums and other institutions. Although PPP loans were designed for small businesses, many larger organizations also received them via loopholes. Watchdog groups are also concerned about the lack of oversight for these loans, with questions about how many institutions are receiving loans but not retaining jobs as they should. Regardless, as we’ve seen from headlines, many museums have already had to lay off workers. And, since the PPP loans were meant to cover just two months of payroll, museums are resuming layoffs since the loans expired. Workers, especially vulnerable ones working only part-time, may bear the brunt of the crisis.

At the same time, the lockdown has inspired some curators and museums to show the possibilities of what museums can do after the pandemic. Dan Hicks, Curator of Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, started the hashtag #MuseumsUnlocked on Twitter, which for 100 days invited anyone to share images of objects in museum collections and monuments around the world, organized around a different theme each day. The project was collaborative, with the participation of official museum accounts, museum staff, and the general public. The use of virtual spaces and cooperative spirit in this and other projects are highly promising. Hicks and a handful of other museum curators and directors have publicly embraced the potential for museums to address their racist pasts, repatriate artifacts, and work more closely with their communities after COVID-19. This is all for the good. But can these recommendations be implemented in the current crisis? The pandemic has also seen many museums make formulaic statements in favor of Black Lives Matter or “systemic change,” but with no real plan to follow through on such statements. And with rising inequality, the public may have even less of a say about museums’ activities and missions than before.

Ultimately, what these trends show is that, if we want museums to reflect our values more, we may need to remake not only them but our society as a whole. What are our priorities and how do we want to fund them? Do we need to rethink our idea of a museum as well? “Museum” does not have to mean an art museum, or a major institution with blockbuster exhibitions. Of course, a large variety of museums of different types and sizes already exists. Perhaps we do not need to recreate museums as much as broaden our existing conceptions of them. It’s helpful to compare museums with public libraries: Libraries are spaces set up for use, not just passive watching; they lend items out to users, and provide basic services (computers, internet, printing, workshops on various topics) that communities need — all for free. The future may be in smaller museums, not just more responsive to communities but more driven by them. As the museum staff I spoke with suggested, the crisis may be an opportunity after all.

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