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Maintaining museum excellence in the time of COVID-19

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In times of crisis and aftermath, the museum field’s core standards and ethics are more important than ever. They foster transparent, smart, and consistent decision-making; help manage risk and safeguard collections; and ensure the publics’ trust in the museum is sustained, which translates into financial support.

Crises highlight gaps in policies, plans, and procedures—but also provide opportunities. Use this time to review, rethink, reimagine, and revise them, and reassess what the museum will look like going forward.

During closure and/or after your museum has reopened and regained its footing, consider the following resources and guidance to ensure:

  • Key operational and strategic documents align with your current practices and new goals and realities
  • Your institution is staying on an even, ethical keel
  • Your museum is moving forward in a strategic, structured way—so it will continue to meet standards, ethics, and professional practices

Core Standards

How will your museum continue to fulfill its public trust responsibilities, and its educational, public service, and collections stewardship roles within the context of available staff and financial resources?

In this unprecedented situation, museums have rapidly and creatively responded with alternative ways to continue to serve their communities and carry out their educational missions.  Some changes might be short-term while others may be successful strategies that become permanent. Your museum may have discovered new audiences and new ways to be part of its communities’ educational and social ecosystems. Museums will be changed after COVID-19 but the obligation to strive to meet Core Standards remains the same. How you get to the end results of these broad outcomes, however, may be different than before.

As you act and plan, keep the Public Trust and Accountability Core Standards at the forefront. Take time to reflect on what you’ve done new or differently that could be continued in service of access and equity.

Core Documents

The following five documents have been designated as core because they are fundamental for professional museum operations and embody core museum values and practices. It is more important than ever to ensure these documents are up-to-date and useful.

Revise the Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response Plan

Did your museum’s disaster plan and emergency planning adequately prepare it for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? Consider these best practices:

  • Include managing a pandemic/infectious disease outbreak and extended closure.
    (See examples from the Milwaukee Art Museum, Museum of Science (Boston), and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)
  • Include sections on continuity of operations (e.g., technology, off-site work, staff access to essential materials/facility).
  • If your museum is not a zoo, aquarium, or garden, but has some living collections: do you have adequate measures in place for their care during a stay at home order?
  • Determine whether the emergency supplies were adequate. Do they need to be restocked or rethought?
  • Assess your communications strategies (internal and external). Make sure your plan has up-to-date contact information for all stakeholders (phone numbers, names).
  • Incorporate into your emergency preparedness and business resumption planning a list of professional resources; for example, updates to Roberts Rules and state meeting policies.

See additional risk management documents/practices to consider, below.

Reflect on the Mission Statement

Think about what you did new or differently during the pandemic while you were closed and as you reopened. Reground your team in your organizational “why” by asking:

  • Are you going to stay the same institution? Is a revision of your mission statement needed?
  • Did you find new opportunities for the museum that were within or outside your current mission?
  • Did this experience show you that your mission was adaptable or too narrow and rigid?

Reimagine and Rethink the Strategic Institutional Plan

Trever Cartwright writes in Forbes, “As we scrub our expenses, adjust our projections, and toss lifeline after lifeline in the direction of possible financial salvation, we must also dedicate focused time to lift our heads long enough and high enough to consider the kind of future we intend to shape for our organizations. Make no mistake, it will be a different kind of future than the one we might have imagined before COVID-19 arrived at our shores.”

Every museum should have a Strategic Institutional Plan that lays out its vision for the next few years and how it’s going to achieve that vision through activities, allocation of resources, and measures of success. Of course, the pandemic and related closures have likely necessarily caused your museum to pivot in the immediate term and may have permanently changed your museum’s long-term strategies. What was in your strategic plan may now be irrelevant or may have to be postponed. And while your next, new, or revised plan may take a very different format and approach, all museums still need to have a plan.

Strategic planning now, while difficult, is essential. In the article Getting ahead of the next stage of the coronavirus crisis, McKinsey authors say, “While some companies may need to enter a long and difficult period of slow rebuilding, others will find near-term opportunities in big, strategic moves and innovations. The point isn’t to develop detailed plans but rather to figure out your broad direction of travel—the big thematic idea around which you can form a strategic response. In a world full of uncertainty, you have to stand for a goal that will matter above all else. This big idea will bring coherence and determination to your evolving tactical response.”

Refocus your strategic planning on short and medium-term recovery planning. Once you’ve moved past the immediate crisis management phase:

  • Reassess the museum’s goals and measures of success with board and staff: do goals align with your museum’s new capacity and outlook for the future?
  • What are the new priorities? Map out short, medium, and even some long-term strategies.
  • Update or rewrite the plan wholly or in part so it is relevant and flexible while continuing to move the institution forward. Consider developing some complementary limited period tactical plans to address new priorities.
  • Take into consideration the impact of the pandemic on your community. Do any of these impacts present opportunities or change your priorities, or your institution’s role within its communities?
  • Involve external stakeholders as much as possible—especially your community/audiences. What does your community need from the museum going forward?

This Forbes article offers five considerations that will help you “get clear, get focused, and get moving toward the future you choose and adopt a new kind of organizational agility as you work toward realizing it.”

In its COVID-19 Strategic Planning Toolkit for Education & Nonprofit Leaders, Bellwether recommends this “simple, four phase planning approach to cut through the noise and focus limited time, energy, and resources.”

McKinsey & Company recommends planning across multiple time horizons using five frames that include setting a broad direction of travel, using scenarios, and setting trigger points for action— all led by a “plan-ahead team.”

Review the Collections Management Policy and Institutional Code of Ethics

Ensure both board and staff are reminded of the provisions in these policies regarding the protection, care, and management of collections, and the approved uses of any proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned objects. Remember that collections should not be treated as financial assets to liquidate for general operational support.

  • AAM’s position on the use of proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned objects remains unchanged. The AAM Code of Ethics for Museums states that funds can only be used for acquisition of new collections or direct care. Per AAM’s Direct Care of Collections: Ethics, Guidelines, and Recommendations, “The Alliance recommends that a museum’s governing authority place the funds realized from the sale of deaccessioned objects in a segregated or identifiable account. In keeping with the spirit of the ethical principles related to deaccessioning and use of funds, the American Alliance of Museums also recommends that the earnings on this segregated or identifiable account be used only for acquisition or direct care. These practices should be stipulated in a museum’s collections management and financial policies.”
  • If direct care of collections is an approved use, the museum should spell out the scope of “direct care of collections,” drawing on the ethical principles underlying direct care of collections as well as the ethics and standards of the museum’s discipline. The Collections Management Policy and Institutional Code of Ethics must have identical statements on use of deaccession proceeds.
  • Note: Check with your discipline-specific association for additional guidance that may apply to your museum/collection type.

Other Key Plans, Policies, Standards, and Professional Practices

Governance

Did your governing authority perform well during the crisis? Is your board ready to effectively lead through recovery and beyond? If not, in the coming weeks and months, the board and museum director need to assess:

  • Do board members have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities—individually and collectively?
  • Did the dynamics, structure, leadership, and composition help or hinder?
  • Are the right people on the board? Does it need others with certain skills or relationships?
  • Did/do you have the technology and training to have effective virtual meetings and in-compliance voting? Are your bylaws contemporary enough to allow for this? Ensure your governing documents and governance practices are up-to-date. This Venable LLP article offers some guidance. Note: some states have specific provisions for emergency powers for nonprofit corporations’ governance that allow for modifications in the event that a disaster or crisis prevents the nonprofit from complying with its normal operational procedures (such as providing standard notice of meetings to all board members and convening a quorum). Check with your state government to learn more.

What should the board’s role and actions be going forward?

Risk Management

Complement your Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response Plan with these additional risk management documents/practices (embedded, as appendices, or cross-referenced):

  • Create a full business continuity plan that complements your disaster plan. If you have one already, make sure it contains current information (names and contact information of vendors, staff, local agencies, etc.) Additional business continuity resources for AAM members are available here.
  • Build emergency financial management into your disaster planning, including both situational planning as well as planning that accounts for basic needs like accounts processing.
  • Technologically speaking, did all staff have access to what they needed while working off-site? Were you prepared for remote work? Implement or upgrade to cloud-based platforms or VPN. Write an IT contingency plan to complement the main emergency plan.
  • Consider succession planning and cross-training: departures, retirements, downsizing, and prolonged illness all impact senior leadership’s ability to carry out their duties and shepherd the museum. Ensure the board has a roadmap for securing interim leadership, reassigning responsibilities, recruiting, and onboarding. In addition to planned succession, unplanned scenarios may also occur. For example, do you have a plan if your museum’s chief executive falls ill? Likewise, make sure senior and key staff are cross-trained so they can easily step in to temporarily fulfill a core museum function if a key staff position is vacated. (Access the Members-only Resource Library for more resources on succession planning.)
  • Crisis communications plan and messaging: consider the responsibilities museums face as cultural leaders in their community. Much of the pressure on institutions has been focused on how to communicate effectively and how to provide effective leadership to ensure sustaining (and even) growing public trust. Develop plans and messaging for during and after the crisis period.

Personnel – Liability and risk assessment

  • Consider the implications of reopening during the crisis on your insurance coverage, risk planning and assessment, and overall liability.
  • Carefully assess the impact of your museum’s employment practices (including benefits, use of contractors, alternative/flexible work arrangements, continuation of pay/benefits practices, and/or staff emergency funding) on the institution’s ability to recover and then sustain itself.

Additional staff/administrative policies and concerns (AAM COVID-19 Resources)

Financial

  • AAM Retrenchment and Downsizing Guidelines
  • Endowments: For a nonprofit holding endowment funds, the COVID-19 crisis may justify reconsidering how best to deploy its endowment. Museums may need to temporarily exceed their established endowment draw thresholds in order to keep the museum operational. However, museums should have a plan in place for how much and how long this will continue; and eventually how the drawdown amount will be returned to normal. Tapping into your endowment’s principal or corpus should be a last resort. Document additional uses with a board resolution as a short-term measure. Also be informed about the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA), which governs the manner in which nonprofits choose to appropriate funds from endowments. Before taking any action, confer with your museum’s legal and financial counsel, and communicate with your state attorney general.

With most museums closed due to quarantine, it is still necessary to ensure the safety and security of the museum, and in particular the objects both in storage and in exhibition spaces.

Collections Stewardship

Here are some helpful tips to care for collections during this time:

  • Good housekeeping is always necessary to maintain clean spaces, especially during a health crisis. Keeping areas clean of dust and debris helps keep infestations and other risks at bay. Check your collections management policy, collections procedures, emergency or disaster plan, and housekeeping manual for suitable ways to keep areas near collections on display and in storage clean. Always consult chemical safety data sheets to ensure products are safe to use around collection objects. Never try to directly clean objects unless you are a trained conservator or collections professional.
  • If your policies or procedures documents do not provide clear advice on cleaning products to use in gallery or exhibition spaces, try using soap and water and a mild disinfectant (such as a spray bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol) to clean surface areas away from objects. This process can be effective in these areas if done with regularity, at least once a day. Be careful to dry areas where water is used to clean and be careful with cleaning equipment in these spaces.
  • Ensure staff who are caring for and cleaning the exhibit spaces are trained in how to clean near objects on display and are aware of what products are approved to use in these areas.
  • Consider doing a weekly wet mop cleaning, if your current schedule is every two weeks.
  • Consider changing out the filters in your HVAC system before reopening to the public.
  • While reviewing policies and procedures, make sure your emergency or disaster plan has a section on epidemics/pandemics.
  • Keep up with the CDC’s recommendations; if a “stay at home” order is in place, wait to go back to the museum (the one exception is a once per week security check.) If staff have access to cameras or environmental monitoring off-site, make sure there are procedures in place to handle any issues that arise (humidity fluctuations or alarms).

The Collections Stewardship Professional Network has developed “Steps for Collections Professionals to help mitigate risks to collections during this time” (in English and Spanish).

Additional Resources and Tools

  • In times of financial crisis, collections may be eyed for sale to generate operating funds – which is a short-term band-aid and goes against fundamental ethics of the museum field. In order to safeguard institutions and avoid an internal crisis point that could lead to poor management of collections and divestment, a Professional Network Task Force created the Collections Sustainability Rubric: Making the Right Decisions for Your Collection (link forthcoming). The Rubric is part of a broader Deaccessioning Toolkit (link forthcoming) developed to help institutions of all sizes consider their collections management work from the broader perspective of sustainability and to promote conversation on the matters of deaccessioning.
  • Retrenchment or Downsizing Guidelines
  • AAM’s latest COVID-19/Coronavirus information for the field (no paywall)
  • Resource Library (available to all members)
  • Sample Document Library (Tier 3 members only)

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