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A Pandemic Time Capsule and Tools for 2021

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
A digital Time Capsule worksheet produced by LONG Creations.
A digital Time Capsule worksheet produced by LONG Creations.

This blog has become an incidental time capsule of 2020, a monthly record of how the museum sector responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, when the first of the posts featured below was published, the US had 1,700 reported cases—that number now stands at over 18 million, with nearly 320,000 deaths. With the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, the end of the pandemic is in sight, but we face many hard months yet to come. This collection ends with four posts that share tools that may be useful in 2021, as museums work to rebuild their communities and their own operations. I look forward to documenting the recovery of our country, and our sector, in the coming year. Let me know if you have stories to share here on the blog.

Yours from the (post-pandemic) future,


–Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

The CFM features guest posts from authors inside and outside the museum field, together with essays by the Center’s director, Elizabeth Merritt, exploring the forces reshaping the museum sector. To keep up with this content in 2021, follow CFM on Facebook (future of museums) or Twitter (@futureofmuseums), bookmark the blog on the Alliance website, and sign up for the weekly e-newsletter Dispatches from the Future of Museums.  


Lessons from History: Museums and Pandemics

As the scope and impact of COVID-19 was becoming clear, historian and museologist Marjorie Schwarzer penned this post reminding us how the museum sector has risen to similar challenges in history and pointing to ways that museums could or are responding to the new pandemic.


“The museum we closed will not be the museum we reopen”

In this guest post Scott Stulen, CEO and President of the Philbrook Museum of Art, told us how he and his staff are sustaining the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma through the pandemic and building the foundation of their own recovery.


Lessons Learned from SARS (and Strikes) at the Ontario Science Center

Jennifer Martin, Julie Bowen, and Lesley Lewis—formerly staff members at the Ontario Science Center—share how that institution responded to the SARS epidemic of 2003, addressing staff fears about health and safety, reassuring their audiences that it was safe to return, and managing their financial recovery.


How to Stay Informed While Staying Sane

Over the course of the summer it became clear that “doomscrolling” (consuming an endless diet of negative online news) was adding significantly to pandemic stress. Yet we know it is more important than ever to be well-informed. In this post, CFM Director Elizabeth Merritt shares advice on how to be well-read while safeguarding your emotional and mental well-being.


Reinventing the Museum: Pandemic Disruptions as an Opportunity for Change

Riffing on an article about how some residents of Venice are using the pause in global tourism to rethink the city’s economy, CFM Director Elizabeth Merritt explores how the pandemic is an opportunity for museums to not merely plan for recovery, but to envision how the post-pandemic future could be different, and better.


Open Source Solidarity: Starting a Mutual Aid Fund at Your Museum

As the pandemic-induced financial crisis drags on, we are seeing the resurgence of a venerable form if community self-help: mutual aid societies. In this guest post staff from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, tell the story of how they started a relief fund to support colleagues, and generously share the documents and resources they created to support this effort.


Why We’re Staying Closed

Many museums are struggling with when, and whether, to open, reclose, and reopen. These enormously difficult decisions may determine whether the organization survives the current crisis. After experiencing the first two stages of this cycle in early July, the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) decided to remain closed through the remainder of the year. In this guest post, President and CEO Judy Gradwohl explains how she and her colleagues decided the best way for The Nat to survive 2020 is to focus on actions online, and in nature, rather than reopening their doors.


Downsizing Our Museum in the Face of a Pandemic

The Alliance’s COVID Snapshot surveys document that over half of museums have furloughed or laid of staff. On average, directors anticipate losing 35 percent of budgeted income in 2020, and 28 percent of normal operating income in 2021. Clearly many museums will need to adjust their operations to fit these constrained resources. In this guest post, Alison Rempel Brown, President and CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota, tells us how she and her colleagues undertook these cuts while supporting the museum staff, upholding the museum’s commitment to equity, and maintaining services to those most in need.


Digital Tools for Pandemic Times

While we wait for the pandemic to end, museums must adapt to operating in a time of heightened concern regarding health and sanitation. Digital technologies can help museums enhance safety for staff and visitors, reassure the public, and reach audiences not ready to visit in person. However, digital solutions require time, training, and integration in addition to hard costs. In this post CFM Director Elizabeth Merritt offers a framework to help museum staff think through the pros and cons of potential digital strategies that may help museums face three challenges in the peri- and post-pandemic era.


Museums as First Responders: Museum of Homelessness

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed gaping holes in the systems that should shield communities from harm. Patching the frayed social safety net will require government, private, and non-profit sectors to work together, going beyond their usual remits to do whatever needs to be done. Museums can play a significant role in this joint effort to protecting vulnerable populations. This guest post offers a case in point, as Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness in the UK, tells us how she and her colleagues are rising to this challenge with a suite of actions from lobbying for government action to serving hot meals.


Using Scenarios to Plan Your Museum’s COVID-19 Response

Published on March 13, this post shared three scenarios of how the pandemic might play out in communities experiencing low, medium, and high levels of impact from COVID-19. In the following nine months, most museums lived through versions of the medium or high impact scenarios. With the deployment of a vaccine, the end of the pandemic is in sight, but 2021 will still be very difficult for communities and for museums. Early next year CFM will publish three new scenarios, modelling how museums can emerge from COVID lockdown, help their communities heal, and adapt to the post-pandemic world. Until then, use this post as a guide to creating your own scenarios and preparing for the year to come.

Three New Scenarios for Financial Survival in 2020

This post provides guidance for how to identify key variables and track critical data, and a worksheet to help museums craft strategies to succeed in each of the scenarios they use to guide their planning.

How to Get Ready to Open the Doors

As of October, nearly one-third of museums in the US remained closed to the public. Of those that remained closed, forty-six percent were planning on opening in 2021, and forty percent had not yet identified a data for reopening. This post from April reviews some of the factors museums need to take into account in deciding when and how to reopen safely.

Fatigue and Resilience Resources

While the end of the pandemic seems to be in sight, people are still suffering massive strain from the changes wrought by COVID-19. This post shares resources collected by Alliance staff to help combat fatigue, cultivate resilience, and manage stress in coming months.

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