One of the TV shows my two younger brothers and I enjoyed watching when we were kids growing up in Detroit was "The Six Million Dollar Man." In the show, astronaut Steve Austin is injured while testing a prototype spacecraft and becomes a "bionic man" by having his legs, one arm, and one eye replaced by advanced biomechanical enhancements. During the opening credits of the series, a voice intones,
"We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better...stronger...faster."
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it feels as if many museum workers are thinking about ways to reopen their museums so they are "better...stronger...faster." But what does it mean for museums to become "better" in a post-pandemic world? Will this crisis provide a turning point for museums or merely speed us along the road we've been traveling on for the past few decades as we rush to reopen?
Whether we can benefit from the current "pause" in museum operations or not, here are 6 (as opposed to six million!) things to think about right now as we ponder the future of our institutions. Nobody has all the right answers, but we all need to be taking the time now to be asking the right questions.
This crisis has shown more forcefully that so many museums have fragile funding structures. It is incomprehensible to me that large art museums with endowments of hundreds of millions of dollars (or more!) still were unable or unwilling to forego staff and contractor layoffs. It is shameful and morally wrong to amass such vast amounts of wealth that cannot be used to support staff in times of extraordinary crisis.
Most, if not all, museums are NOT truly self-sustaining entities and it is unrealistic to keep suggesting otherwise. The US government could, and should, do more to support the arts and cultural institutions -- a mere sliver of the federal budget redirected to this purpose would make a significant difference and support many, many jobs of museum, arts, and cultural workers. (And I don't mean the woefully inadequate funding currently doled out to the NEH, NEA, and IMLS -- which should each be increased by many multiples.)
The already disproportionate numbers of women, people of color, and younger people in entry-level or lower-level front-of-house, security, admissions, and education roles belies the true concerns about equity by many organizations.
Who occupies the top spots in museums? Follow the money -- to which departments are funds allocated, and to which people in the organization? Similarly, which people and departments face the cuts first when crisis strikes? Where you cut and spend often indicates your organization's real values.
In a world where people have been trained to socially distance themselves from each other, to be wary of touching surfaces, and to be hyper-vigilant about sanitary issues, how do we show visitors we share their concerns? What does this mean for new *public* cleaning regimens and added staff roles related to facilities?
How can we rethink the notions of "hands-on" exhibits? How do we re-tool or re-purpose educationally questionable (and now public-health questionable) experiences like mini-grocery stores? How can we use technology and creative design approaches to recalibrate our notions of interactive exhibits and environments?
5) EDUCATION PROGRAMS
Museum educators and public-facing staff are the heart of museums. Without them, museums are just businesses masquerading as non-profits, not serving their communities as resources. If museums are serious about their roles as community resources, that should be reflected in the way they conduct business, NOT just when they are filling out grant applications or trying to impress donors.
6) PUBLIC TRUST
Museums are often, and rightfully so, touted as among the most trusted organizations. What does our behavior during and immediately after the pandemic do to build upon and continue that trust by the public?
Lots to think about as we move into the post-pandemic museum landscape. What are YOUR key concerns related to museums? Share your thoughts in the "Comments" section below.
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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!
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