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Downsizing Our Museum in the Face of a Pandemic

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
The Science Museum's T. rex specimen demonstrating proper masking.
The Science Museum's T. rex specimen demonstrating proper masking.

According to the Alliance’s first COVID snapshot of museum operations, conducted this past summer, one-third of US museums expected to lose over 40 percent of their annual operating income this year. Forty one percent anticipate having to reduce staff, and only two thirds are confident they will be able to survive through 2021. This reflects the financial landscape of the US—so far, the nonprofit sector has lost nearly 1 million jobs, and 22,000 nonprofits will probably close for good. Many museums will need to contract their operations and survive on a smaller budget until the pandemic recedes and traditional sources of income rebound. In today’s guest post, Alison Rempel Brown, President & CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota, tells us how she and her colleagues are undertaking these cuts while supporting the museum staff as best they can, upholding the museum’s commitment to equity, and maintaining services to those most in need.
–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museum, American Alliance of Museums

The Science Museum of Minnesota is located in St. Paul, Minnesota, and serves the whole region with original scientific research, explorations into equity, and a range of education programs onsite and around the community. We use STEM as a tool to advocate for justice and equity, acknowledging that significant change must start from within us – as individuals and as an institution. Our building is 309 thousand square feet, with seventy-four thousand square feet devoted to public areas and exhibitions. Pre-pandemic, onsite school group attendance was 108 thousand, and we reached another eighty thousand school children through field trips and assemblies. Museum attendance was six hundred thousand visitors, with seventy-eight thousand of those through our free and low cost access programs. Our operating revenue was forty-one million dollars, with just under five hundred employees.

When the pandemic forced the museum to physically close on March 13, we could not fulfill our mission as we normally do, through our museum experience, programs, education, and exhibit development for other organizations, etc. Museum leadership (which I define as senior leaders and directors) had to determine what we could do, while also preserving our financial resources and pushing ourselves to be innovative. We were guided by our five strategic priorities: mission impact, one museum culture, planning, business model, and philanthropy. We looked at our mission impact and determined what we could still deliver and create online based on our community’s immediate needs in being home and supporting families with children and adults. Senior leaders knew this was an area where we had underinvested in the past, and wanted to ensure that we had the necessary talent to create online experiences.

Responding swiftly did not mean responding easily. The senior leaders anguished over our decisions in a time of great uncertainty. We were making choices that affected excellent employees we cared about deeply and who were also concerned about their families and friends. As I mentioned earlier, our annual revenues were running around forty-one million and growing over the last three years. Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2020, our revenues fell to thirty million due to the COVID-19 closure, and we project twenty million in revenues this fiscal year. These revenue reductions required the senior leaders working with the directors to make some difficult decisions in service of the Science Museum’s mission and our community during this time of crisis.


In the immediate aftermath of closing, senior leadership met seven days a week for several hours each day to figure out all we had to do. After meeting with the executive and human resources committees of the board of trustees on March 24, we notified our employees and the public that we would temporarily lay off 87 percent of our staff based on a twelve-week closure model. We used the term “temporary layoff” because of the confusion around the language furlough, temporary layoff, and layoff. Except in union situations, furlough does not have a legal meaning, although it may have a cultural one. We wanted it to be clear we intended to bring the employees back. We provided health benefits to all of our employees (active or temporarily laid off) and maintained weekly communication through this period. In addition, all senior leaders took a 60 percent salary reduction, and I took a 75 percent one. While difficult, these changes served the museum well, as we conserved financial resources and focused our work around digital delivery still aligned around science and education that centers equity.

As staff moved through this period, from March through June, museum leadership started to plan for a phased reopening. Pre-pandemic, our revenues were approximately one-third from visitor-facing sources, one-third from contract work we did for other museums or education and science grants, and one-third from contributions. About 5 percent of our revenues came from our endowment. We knew those sources would change as we moved forward. What we didn’t want to change was our focus on science and education centered around equity. But what would we do and when? At a late May planning discussion with our directors, the senior leaders shared a guiding star with them to consider as they built their plans: What is a relevant institution, how does what we do fit our focused strategy, how do we bring our visitors/members back, and how do we benefit our community?

Planning for Reopening

As we started planning to reopen, we needed to scan for what our community needed and understand how we could support them. This was a bigger challenge for us at that time than it would have been a month earlier, when we had more staff professionally trained in community and equity work back at the museum. Still, we knew what we started in the next three months would only be the beginning of our work. We didn’t know where the pandemic would ultimately lead the needs of society.

In our planning, museum leadership took a two-pronged approach—defining what we would stop doing and what we would begin to do in response to community needs, all with our staff and community’s safety as a top priority. As we determined what we would stop doing, we created three categories—delay, discontinue, and consider alternatives. While we started this exercise separately in each division, as if the answers would be different for each, we quickly realized that we needed to do it collaboratively, like everything else we were doing. If one area was going to stop or delay a project or task that another area required to get their work done, there was a mismatch. And we couldn’t walk down the hall or to another floor to ask each other questions like we used to do. This was a more iterative process than we planned, and it took longer. It was an essential communication tool to document these changes for each other, employees, trustees, and journalists (once they got involved later on during reopening).

I’ll run through a few things that fell into each category of delay, discontinue, and consider alternatives.

First, there’s a lot we delayed because we missed the peak summer attendance months. We moved the reopening of our revised exhibit Race: Are We So Different? and associated programming from June 2020 to January 2021. We rescheduled our third staff racial equity survey from March until later this year. We delayed plans to experiment with new engagement ideas for our recently digitized OmniTheater until attendance and the health understanding of COVID-19 stabilize.

Onto discontinue, which I’ve always found harder for museums to consider. We decided to change the specialized visitor staffing to a structure that supports a more flexible, agile approach, where staff move throughout the museum’s galleries, gift store, OmniTheater, and call center based on visitor needs rather than fixed positions. We discontinued wristbands, paper tickets, maps, and lots of paper use, and leveraged technological resources instead. We ended night-shift custodial work, so our visitors see the cleaning happening during the day, which we know from surveying and social media that visitors love.

And our last category, alternatives: We are looking at how we can provide after-school programming for our city’s public schools, focusing on BIPOC and youth from families with lower incomes. We also looked at all events that happen across the museum in various areas and figured out how to consolidate running them out of one place.

By early summer, we understood that this pandemic and the museum’s closure would have an impact far greater than we originally anticipated. We needed to make permanent staffing reductions and reopen as a smaller institution. Salaries and benefits pre- and post-reductions remained the same as a percent of our overall expenses, because we reduced all other costs as well. We also needed to change our on- and off-site programmatic offerings due to COVID-19 requirements. We increased virtual and digital delivery as feasible, while postponing volunteer interpretive interactions, professional theater programs, and special adult programming. Other decisions were made for financial reasons, such as closing exhibits that were expensive to maintain. So far, having only been open twenty-one days, we’ve received high visitor ratings for their experience and sense of safety.

Staffing Decisions

Staffing decisions were driven by equity (race and ethnicity, disability, gender, and veteran status) and benefit-eligible roles. We redesigned our benefit structure to begin eligibility at twenty hours per week, rather than the previous requirement of thirty hours per week, resulting in an 11 percent increase in benefit-eligible staff, which we also see as part of our work around equity. The new staffing structure was based on creating a smaller, more integrated organization that was financially sustainable, nimble, and aligned with business plans. Salaries and benefits went down 29 percent between FY2019 actuals and FY2021 estimates.

How did we do in terms of equity of impact? Not as well as we wanted or could have. Museum staff of color levels fell from 24 percent to 21 percent, and people with disabilities decreased from 9 percent to 6 percent. What happened? While we had equity as one of our key goals—and we made adjustments along the way recognizing organizational complexities such as delayed programming, seasonality, and staff who voluntarily declined employment—senior leaders didn’t allow enough time to review the equity impact of our decisions. We still have the chance to bring back more staff of color and with disabilities as we start to regrow.

One decision we made early on is how we looked at benefits and salary levels. As I mentioned, the senior leaders took significant salary cuts during the closure period. We did reduce some active employees’ hours, and we worked with them to make sure that they did not work over their scheduled hours. We did not reduce any active employees’ hourly pay, nor did we reduce benefits. The senior leaders also did not reduce benefits or pay as we brought employees back. We knew everyone was and would be working very hard. Senior leaders’ salaries are at 85 percent of their base salary after starting the new fiscal year. We felt it was better to reduce the scope of work than to reduce salaries for staff who were already under such stress professionally and personally.

As any new positions become available, we are notifying the laid-off staff of these opportunities through dedicated communications to them.

Looking Back

In the five months we were completely shut down, every two-week period required a significant set of decisions. To make things even harder, all these decisions were made under the stress of a new remote working environment and the unknown health implications of COVID-19. The downsizing steps we used were effective, but with hindsight, I’d add in an extra week for a thorough review of our decisions around equity. We didn’t want to make any of these decisions, and we hope someday to grow back and rehire our fantastic employees who lost their positions through no fault of their own.

As of June 30, 2019, the museum held total investments of $47.8 million, consisting of $20.4 million held in perpetuity and $27.4 million held until approved for spending. The museum restructured its long-term debt, used existing debt capacity, leveraged its balance sheet flexibility, and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to fund ongoing expenses during the shutdown. During this challenging period, the museum will use nearly $10 million of incremental debt and reserves to avoid additional short-term staff and programming reductions. If not for this incremental liquidity, short-term reductions would have been even more severe, and the museum would not have the time or financial flexibility necessary to restructure its business for future growth. We wish we had the resources to support everyone for the full length of the pandemic, which could be a long event. We hope science helps make that period shorter, and trust that scientists will guide us to the best possible outcome.

As president and CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Alison Rempel Brown leads an organization firmly committed to science and education that centers equity. Under Brown’s leadership, the Science Museum adopted a new strategic plan designed to transform the organization into a resource that captures the power and talent of all people – especially women and people of color – so they see themselves as scientists. Brown came to the Science Museum from the California Academy of Sciences, where she oversaw infrastructure and operations and helped lead the organization through the construction and opening of a spectacular new facility in Golden Gate Park. She is a graduate of Pomona College and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
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