To remain viable, museums must reinvent themselves - 25 Apr 2020

HindustanTimes
Vinod Daniel

During the extended lockdown, there have been few online attractions provided by museums for the public to visit. The crisis offers them an opportunity to provide more services digitally.

A relatively unnoticed impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the restrictions which have followed it, is on museums across the world.

The Metropolitan Museum, New York, expects a budget shortfall of $100 million over the next 12 months, which will lead to job losses and cuts in its programme schedule. There are about 400 State-supported museums in Italy, which now have no activity. China has a large number of State-supported museums and has been setting up between 200 and 400 publicly-funded new museums every year. The Indian government had recently announced a large funding increase for the ministry of culture to build five new museums and retrofit five existing museums. All these could be under threat since most governments expect a large revenue shortfall and a much lower GDP growth than predicted, which could make them rethink their budget allocations.

The Covid-19 pandemic should be a huge wake-up call for the museum sector. It is a sector that has not been nimble, especially to incorporate audience expectations and technology, including digital. Many of them still have an old static idea of what a museum should be and have not rethought their mission for over several decades.

There is a strong likelihood that the funding available for museums will decrease. Most governments are currently reworking their expenditure plans, cutting costs, and reallocating budgets. For government-supported museums, this may not lead to many job losses, but vacant positions are unlikely to be filled, cut in programmes and other core activities are likely, and there will be a reduction in capital works.

A majority of museums worldwide, however, are not supported by public budgets and have to depend on their own earnings through revenue from ticketing and events, sale of merchandise and other corporate lifelines.

With a few months of lockdown with no revenues, and a major component within most museum budgets being taken up by staffing and maintenance, the impact will be immense. We can expect a number of them to remain closed for a substantial period of time, and a few to close permanently. Even if they open, their capacity to deliver on programmes will be limited. To follow social distancing measures, museums will have to regulate the number of visitors they allow at any given time, and hence the number of physical visitors will be much lower too.

Since museums have an important role in both tourism as well as being custodians of cultural wealth, it is more important than ever that governments, as part of the stimulus, consider support for museums as a priority.

This crisis will also provide an opportunity for museums to rethink their relevance and outreach role. During the extended lockdown, there have been few online attractions provided by museums for the public to visit. The crisis offers them an opportunity to provide more services digitally. It allows them to develop newer online revenue models to make up for any financial losses through reduced physical visits.

Hopefully, in a new avatar, museums will now keep audiences as a priority, manage its operations like a business, penetrate deeply into every home, and provide competition to cinemas and amusement parks physically and to Netflix and cable channels virtually.

Vinod Daniel is chair of AusHeritage and a board member of the International Council of Museums.
The views expressed are personal.