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The Grand Rapids Public Museum reopened to the public with special precautions on July 6. Visitors are required to maintain their distance, wear a mask and purchase tickets in advance. The Grand Rapids Public Museum reopened to the public with special precautions on July 6. Visitors are required to maintain their distance, wear a mask and purchase tickets in advance. PHOTO: Grand Rapids Public Museum

Museums face key challenges given capacity limits, loss of revenue

BY Sunday, August 16, 2020 12:57pm

Muskegon’s Lakeshore Museum Center had big plans for the 2020 season. 

The museum’s historic Hackley and Hume homes as well as the City Barn historic sites were among 33 stops for the up to four different cruise ships that planned to operate on the Great Lakes this summer, with planned visits to Muskegon. 

Lakeshore Museum Center Vice President Melissa Horton said the museum planned to hire more staff and open seven days a week. 

“We were thinking this was going to be our busiest year ever,” Horton said.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. 

Now, Lakeshore Museum Center is finding itself in the same boat as other museums who may be able to ride out short-term financial losses, but aren’t sure what they’ll do if the effects of the pandemic carry into next year. That’s particularly true because of the Lakeshore Museum Center’s reliance on admissions and income from programs.

Museums typically generate revenue from admission fees or spending on food or gift shop items, all of which stopped when they closed their doors to the general public in March to comply with state-mandated orders resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This forced many museums to retool to offer virtual access, enabling them to maintain connections with their patrons until they could safely reopen.

However, this stopgap measure may not prevent the closure of as many as one-third of museums throughout the United States, according to results of a June study conducted by the American Alliance of Museums

In July, the Alliance released findings of a study that found “one out of every three museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry.” The organization put out a call for government assistance and private donors to step up, given that “hundreds of directors reported their museums may not survive the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic.”

The survey findings from a sample of 750 museum directors confirmed early estimates of the dire economic harm to museums caused by the COVID-19 closures, which are expected to continue in reaction to recent outbreaks across the country.

“Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover,” Laura Lott, president and CEO of AAM, said in a statement. “Even with a partial reopening in the coming months, costs will outweigh revenue and there is no financial safety net for many museums. The distress museums are facing will not happen in isolation. The permanent closure of 12,000 museums will be devastating for communities, economies, education systems, and our cultural history.”

Seeking efficiencies

Among the museums grappling with this dire forecast are more than 600 in the state of Michigan, said Nathan Kemler, president of the Cheboygan-based Michigan Museums Association and director of galleries and collections at Grand Valley State University

Kemler said many Michigan museums have had to lay off staff members, who may never be brought back or choose not to come back because they’ve found another job.

“We’re expecting some museums to close and not reopen,” Kemler said. “We’re not expecting it to be at the same level indicated in the AAM survey in part because a lot of museums in Michigan are volunteer-run or have a part-time staff member.”

Kemler said some museum content can be easily translated into a digital format to give more people access without an in-person visit.

The GVSU galleries and collections he oversees have the benefit of being attached to a larger institution, which has its own challenges, including changes to enrollment and costs associated with providing safe, clean spaces throughout its campus. Kemler and his staff will be much more efficient and not host exhibits that include activities focusing on the sense of smell or touch.

Instead, his team is focusing on core concepts and how those can be translated across a digital platform.

“We’re trying to find cost-saving measures where we’re not investing a lot of money into things that are not useful for the vast majority of our community,” Kemler said. 

Adapting to changes

Figuring out how best to meet the community’s needs while adhering to social distancing guidelines in the reopening process forms a key challenge for the Lakeshore Museum Center in Muskegon. The Museum Center reopened on July 6 with limited capacity and its Historic Sites opened up on July 9. The center has one of its three hands-on galleries open at half capacity.

“We’re testing now to see how we can keep it clean,” Horton said. “We’ve got multiple items so we can take the ones that have been touched out and put clean ones in. Before COVID, the push was to go more immersive and we had to take the immersive out.”

The Grand Rapids Public Museum was able to quickly adapt and move its high touch-point pieces, said Katie Kocienski, the museum’s vice president of marketing and public relations.

“Museums that are more hands-on might not be able to adapt as quickly as us,” she said. “We are lucky that we have the ability to adapt like that.”

As was the case with so many other museums, the Public Museum also began offering virtual opportunities to maintain engagement with the community. This included virtual summer camps, which sparked several new partnerships, including one with D.A. Blodgett St. John’s that used content from these camps with its students.

“The museum was able to convert the in-person experience into digital programs and continue to be a resource to schools,” Kocienski said. “We’re continuing to evaluate what’s happening and making adjustments as we go. We’re looking at new ways to bring in revenue that will supplement the decline in attendance.”

The Public Museum reopened on July 6 and is tracking at a little over 30 percent of its usual attendance, Kocienski said. 

Admission at the Lakeshore Museum Center is about 3 percent of normal.

In March, the Muskegon-based museum began offering virtual school tours, which it plans to continue this fall. The organization also offered a Museum Camp-In-A-Box to take the place of canceled in-person camps. The boxes included camp activities with a code for a link that connects participants to videos done by the staff.

The museum also offered a virtual approach for people who wanted to tour the historic Hackley and Hume homes as well as the City Barn. In-person tours of each of these sites have resumed with limited numbers of people in each group.

Cultural concerns

While the financial concerns are top of mind for museum officials, they say they are just as concerned about the hole that will be left in their communities if their museums or others cease to exist.

“Museums and arts and cultural institutions are the places that hold our collective stories and our identity, which is what makes our communities unique and gives us a context of understanding,” Kemler said. “If we remove those from our communities, there will be a massive void.”

In addition to a void, Kocienski said she thinks museums really connect people to their community and provide a space for community conversations. She said a lot of it is about placemaking and quality of life.

“Museums in general all have their place in making a community desirable,” she said.

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