At the same time we’re helping partners and clients think through the issues and details of how to open and operate in a pre-vaccine world, Thinkwell is also considering what this means for the museum field at large. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, this is both a hit to the finances and the experience of museums; it’s undermined our audience’s comfort levels and trust in being in public and participatory. It’s clear that even once there’s a widely-adopted, strong vaccine, the field cannot simply go back to ‘business-as-usual’. This time and crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity, and it represents a chance to boldly re-envision what it means to be a museum, what manifesting your mission really looks like in a society transformed by COVID19, and how we collectively get there.
In the upcoming weeks and months, we’re going to explore three big areas of change we see for museums and cultural institutions, in what we hope will be a robust dialog with you and some of our colleagues and collaborators:
Funding and operating models: As institutions face major budget shortfalls, financial models and museum governance represent areas of potential transformation. How can museums change board development and function, funding strategies, and income generation in order to be more crisis-proof? Which institutions managed to avoid major staff cuts and what set them up for this success? How will operations evolve in the wake of COVID19?
Community: It’s clear from the research that museums’ role and value in their communities must become stronger, in order to survive and thrive even when the next crisis comes. How can museums ‘do right’ by their own internal communities – their staff – in times of crisis and uncertainty? Who have our institutions failed to invite in, serve, and meaningfully co-create with? How can museums use this time to examine shortcomings in equity and inclusion in their towns, cities, and regions and address those? And how do museums establish themselves as a ‘must-have’ for strong communities, not a ‘nice-to-have’, generating strong financial and governmental support?
Interactivity: The current crisis presents a ‘worst-case scenario’ for museums that have embraced interactivity and participatory experiences. This situation won’t last forever, but it will force a long, hard look at not just the technologies and interfaces of interactivity, but how interactivity is used and incorporated. Just because touchable surfaces and close quarters aren’t safe for now, doesn’t mean audiences are willing to go back whole cloth to the old days of passively receiving information. What does the future of interactivity look like? What technologies and techniques can address not only the immediate need to reduce the potential for contact transmission of disease, but also free interactives from inherently exclusive modes that not all guests can use? How can this push us towards true universal design? Can we create museums and cultural institutions that are seamlessly, holistically immersive, and responsive to individual visitors?
Museums and other cultural institutions need to get through the next few months. Survival is the name of the game. But survival doesn’t have to come at the expense of visioning and growth – the two can coexist. We look forward to plumbing these ideas and opportunities with you, as we all work towards a future that looks a little different than what we might have dreamed up last year.