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Reinventing Museums: Pandemic Disruption as an Opportunity for Change

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Grand Canal East End, Venice, by Benh LIEU SONG on Flickr
Grand Canal East End, Venice, by Benh LIEU SONG on Flickr

Looking for some good things in a terrible time, people have pointed out that air pollution plummeted as the world locked down, sea turtles are nesting undisturbed, managers are realizing telecommuting actually increases productivity, and insurers, providers, regulators and patients are embracing telemedicine (which, done right, could reduce costs and improve care in the long term).

In several recent webinars and interviews, I’ve been asked whether any good will come out of the pandemic for museums. Given thirty seconds or so to answer the question, I’ve tossed out some things that come to mind: financial stress and practical limits on loans may lead museums to explore their own permanent collections to create new exhibits. (We saw this happen during the 2008 recession as well.) Cost, logistics and the fact that the public is unlikely to want to crowd into packed venues may finally end the reliance of some museums on “blockbuster” exhibitions (which are already recognized as the financial equivalent of an unhealthy sugar rush). Long-term downturns in tourism may lead some museums to pay more attention to the needs and interests of their local communities. I think these could all be good things.

But sometimes when people ask this question, they are hoping to hear how the pandemic may change power structures, authority, pay, and working conditions in museums—aspects of our field with which they were already profoundly unhappy before the pandemic struck. I’ve been frustrated in trying to give that query the attention it deserves in the brief context of a Q&A, so I’m tackling it in this blog post. Frankly it’s too big a question for a single post, either (perhaps a graduate thesis?) but I hope this is at least a productive start.

When it comes to deep structural changes, the answer to “is this crisis an opportunity for change” is complicated. As Jim Dator wrote in 1994, when offering advice on writing stories of the future, “catastrophes can happen in your scenario, but they cannot be the cause of a new and perfect humanity which sees the error of its ways, and now is all sweetness and light.” The fact that a museum is going broke, laying off staff and facing the danger of permanent closure, doesn’t mean that it is going to respond by raising salaries for front-line staff, instituting pay caps for executives, adopting a flat management structure, or welcoming union organizing efforts.

Which isn’t to say that these things—pay reform, reorganization, and improved working conditions—can’t happen, but they aren’t an inevitable or even a likely result of disruption, absent other forces at work. In this post I profile one example of such “other forces”:  local activists using the disruptions created by the pandemic as an opportunity to build a preferred future for their city.

Reinventing Venice
In the past few decades, Venice has become a “tourism monoculture,” with half the city’s 50,000 residents directly employed in tourism, indirectly supporting the other half. Even as the number of residents shrink, the city hosts 20 million tourists a year. Those two trends are intertwined—Venetians are being squeezed out by the soaring cost of housing in part because 8,000 apartments have become dedicated Airbnb rental units. Tourism lowers the quality of life for those who remain in the city—damaging the Venetian lagoon’s already fragile ecology, degrading monuments, monopolizing transportation and clogging the narrow roadways. This recent article in the New York Times outlines the vicious economic cycle that drives Venice’s reliance on tourist dollars and how COVID presents an opportunity to break that addiction.

Italy was one of the early hotspots in the global pandemic and imposed draconian travel restrictions to tamp down the spread of the virus. Even after the government lifted travel restrictions in early June, Venice has seen few tourists. The paucity of visitors has had some positive effects (you may have seen videos of fish and jellyfish returning to the city’s clean and empty canals) but this has devastated the local economy. Some residents see this lull as an opportunity to achieve something they have long wanted—a sustainable model for tourism that supports a livable city, a healthy ecosystem, and a more diverse economy.

COVID-19 has spurred disparate groups to coordinate their efforts to reshape Venice as the economy rebounds, promoting actions that will create healthier forms of tourism and new sources of income for residents. For example, cultivating fewer, wealthier tourists could free up housing and minimize environmental damage. Promoting and expanding local universities, while emphasizing programs relevant to local issues (climate change, cultural preservation), could support jobs untethered from tourism. In the Times article an art curator points out that “Arts foundations and research institutes from all over the world should have an interest to open a chapter here.” And (per Richard Florida) some locals believe that Venice’s economy could be supported by the creative class—especially digital nomads who can choose to work from anywhere in the world. These ideas, in turn, suggest specific short-term steps toward this desired future: converting empty B&Bs to student housing; offering incentives to arts organizations to open local outposts; creating coworking spaces to support start-ups and individual entrepreneurs; drafting regulations that discourage day-trippers and cruise-ship tourism while encouraging long-term stays.

This is a wonderful vision, supported by great ideas. I hope that this informal coalition holds together and relentlessly pushes officials, residents, and businesses to walk this path. Absent this kind of concerted action to create a new economy for the city, tourism in Venice may well rebound to the old monocultural model, because the existing incentives and structures favor the pre-pandemic system.

Lessons for Museums  
Your vision of a better future for your museum, or museums in general, may seem as improbable as a dream of a clean, livable Venice in which people from abroad may experience its history, architecture and culture as students, researchers, or independent workers in addition to a modest number of tourists. The pandemic has gutted the traditional business model of museums just as thoroughly as it has emptied the Venetian canals, and this may present the opportunity to build new systems rather than simply rebounding to the status quo. But, per the example of the “sustainable tourism” activists, it isn’t enough to know what you don’t want (be it monotourism, reliance on paid admissions, or inequities in pay and power) you also need to envision what you want in its place, design a financial model that can support that new system, and identify what steps you can take to bend the future in this direction.

Last year I led delegates to Museums Advocacy Day in a short exercise in backcasting—a tool for plotting a course from the present to a desired future. In the next post in this series, I’ll explore how you might use backcasting to identify what you can do now to create a path towards a future of healthy, sustainable museum operations.

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    1. Hi John, the subsequent posts will appear here, on the CFM Blog. You can also follow me on Twitter @futureofmuseums or on Facebook (futureofmuseums)for alerts when new posts appear.

  1. The key phrase is “absent other forces at work,” and many of them are at work. I’m really looking forward to your next post. The field is beyond ready for a shift, and it seems to me that the major sticking point is the financial model. Museums addicted to cheap and fast earned revenue as opposed to steady, sustained, long-term support are not going to be able to bring about the human-centered changes they need. And since we can’t expect public visitation numbers to rebound to pre-COVID states for a long time, we need to rethink how museums are supported. I hope the “backcasting” exercise will address the funding predicament American museums have ended up in due to our society’s choice to fund culture mostly philanthropically and voluntarily. That’s going to be the linchpin of their ability to survive and make the shift to being the employers and service providers they should be, and should have been for some time.

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