| Lizzy Moriarty | Octobre 2020 |
When you were first “let out” after five months of lockdown, your first taste of freedom probably did not involve visiting a museum. This is what museums were hoping you would do. However the expected ‘pent up demand’ has not happened. In previous crises, such as SARS and 9/11, museums experienced a wave of visitors wanting to consume culture once they reopened, perhaps for reassurance or as a form of distraction.
No evidence of a rush to consume culture
The Covid-19 crisis is different, since the beginning of August when most of the larger museums in the UK reopened, visitors have trickled in; but there is no evidence of a rush to consume culture. This, in conjunction with the lack of international tourism, means that national museums are attracting only 12% of their normal summer visitors. As they prepared for reopening, they were hoping for at least 20%.
Westminster Abbey for example has gone from 5,000 visitors per day to 500 a day with a maximum of 50 visitors per half-hour time slot. Whilst it is wonderful for visitors to be able to wander around almost empty galleries, it is not so good for the museums. This will put an enormous hole in museum finances as museums rely increasingly on income from temporary exhibition tickets, their cafés and restaurants and of course the museum shop.
Financial support for arts organisations
Unlike many other European institutions, which have more government subsidy, museums in the UK over the last ten years have been driven to become increasingly financially “sustainable” by successive governments whilst providing free access to their permanent collections. They have done very well in this endeavour and have been recognised for becoming more commercially astute, some earning up to 50% or even 60% of their annual budget by commercial and philanthropic means.
In general the commercial driver has had a positive impact. It has led museums to be more dynamic, more outwardly focused and more collaborative. However in times of crisis, when their income streams dry up overnight and their costs go up in order to comply with Covid-19 safety guidelines, no amount of commercial activity will sustain them unaided. The UK government has responded with a very welcome pledge of £1.57bn support for arts organisations. This has provided much needed resource to enable the sector to regroup and prepare for the future.
So what are museums doing to encourage the public to come back?
After all, a museum without the public is a sad and lifeless place. They are changing their opening hours and dedicating time slots to vulnerable people so that they can view the exhibitions with even fewer other visitors. They are controlling visitor numbers with pre-booked online ticketing and putting in one-way systems around the entire museum to manage visitor flow and prevent visitors from having to pass one another in narrow spaces.
Audience research has indicated that visitors are nervous about coming back to museums. They need reassurance that the museum is focusing on their safety, which is indeed the case. Some museums check temperatures before allowing visitors in and some have produced a range of masks, and have taken the opportunity to think creatively about branding them.
Other institutions such as the Natural History Museum have been clever in their signage throughout the galleries, reminding visitors to keep 2m apart and they have created a trail of dinosaur prints on the floor to indicate the one-way flow.
Some visitor attractions are even investing in technology to prevent visitors from getting too close to each other as they wander around the galleries. The Duomo in Florence is handing out transponders to visitors, which beep when they are within 2m of each other. Interactive science museums with touch screens and hands-on interactives, such as Le Palais de la Découverte in Paris, are already planning for future exhibitions to be interactive, but hands off rather than hands on. Le Palais de la Découverte is investigating movement sensors for the exhibitions currently in development, rather than touch screens and large buttons that can be activated with an elbow rather than a hand.
All this preparation has been carried out with up to 80% of museum staff on furlough, and those that were not, were working from home, communicating through Zoom and sourcing vast quantities of hand sanitiser and Perspex screens online.
Virtual tours and digital innovations
Despite all of this, during lock-down, many museums and visitor attractions have been impressively creative in developing virtual tours, and online events. Zoos were top of the lock-down digital innovation list by providing animal appearances for children’s birthday parties. Elmwood Park Zoo in Pennsylvania offered Zoom appearances with their animals at $150 for 15 minutes with a giraffe or $100 for a porcupine.
Other zoos took to Cameo to find a huge audience waiting to invite their animals to send pre-recorded congratulation messages and generally be the star of the event. Take up was far beyond their projections and the trend continues post-lockdown with some animals appearing in business meetings… not a job for the sloth perhaps!
A digital experience will never replace “the real thing” but it does allow museums and visitor attractions to build a profile and even revenue from people around the world who may never actually visit.
Through adversity comes innovation, and museums and visitor attractions are adapting. These digital innovations along with building local or regional audiences will bring us into the next phase of recovery.
We are now in a strange time between the “no longer” and the “yet to be”, trying to prepare our museums for a future that no one can envisage. But for now, there is no doubt that museums will adapt and they will survive but they will need their visitors to come back again and again, to be inspired by human endeavour, the awesomeness of nature or the fascination of scientific phenomena. It is all there, waiting for visitors to bring it to life. Book your on-line ticket to your favourite museum now!