Webinar Report: “OECD webinar: COVID-19 and museums. Impact, innovations and planning for post-crisis.”


covid webinar






The webinar, organised by OECD and ICOM and held on the 10th April, focused on three main topics:

– short and long term impact of COVID-19 on museums

– innovative solutions and opportunities for the future

– policies implemented to support the museum sector.

Museums are agents of local development as they create jobs, generate revenues, are anchoring institutions for many communities across the world; they are at the heart of regeneration projects, contribute to communities’ development and people’s wellbeing and collaborate with many other partners like schools, prisons, hospitals and job centres.

Museums across the world, both public and private, are seeing their revenues drop, which puts their financial sustainability at risk.

The American Alliance of Museums estimates that up to 30% of US museums, mostly in small, rural areas will not reopen unless they receive immediate financial assistance.

In addition to earnings’ loss, museums are also expecting a drop in charitable contributions and donations.

Even in optimistic scenarios, time will be needed to return to pre-crisis levels of domestic and international tourism which means, in the medium term, museums will have less resources for their core functions.

Of course, this reduction in revenues has an impact on jobs in museums and in the museums’ ecosystem: around the world, we see museums reduce wages and lay off staff (especially temporary staff and external contractors in publishing, exhibitions and commercial activities). There is also a threat to small companies and freelancers working in the museum’s ecosystem – working outside museums and yet vital for them.

Most museums and local development projects are put on hold and, in the medium term, there will be reduced capacities to contribute to local projects.

Looking on the bright side, faced with this unprecedented challenge, we cannot go to museums but museums have come to us. Initiatives such as #MuseumsAndChill (ICOM) #CultureChezNous (France) #myhomeismymuseum (Stuttgart), #MetAnywhere (Metropolitan Museum of Art) have arisen and are very much in demand at the moment. The Louvre has seen an increase from 40,000 online visitors a day to 400,000.

Some emerging innovations for the future:

-increased recognition of the link between culture and people’s wellbeing and mental health;

-increased recognition of the link between culture and education;

-increased level of trust in cultural institutions;

-digital becomes more important: stronger cross-fertilisation with virtual reality, stronger cross-overs between culture and education, culture and wellbeing.

 What do we need to support the museum sector and its ecosystem?

Across countries, we see different support measures being implemented to support museums and the ecosystem around them (emergency and financial assistance, income support, access to business support programs, tax incentives for public and private museums) .

According to Nathalie Bondil, Director General at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the situation varies depending on the type and size of museum (whether it is private or public, small or large).
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is a private museum which receives a grant from the provincial government. Like small and medium enterprises, they are facing challenges in cash flow and have to make difficult decisions regarding staff.

Even for public museums one could think that they benefit from public support but in many countries up to 40% of revenue comes from tickets or other commercial activities or have to pay for rent. Therefore, the situation is not easy for state, public museums either.

Mattia Agnetti, Executive Director at Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia (MUVE), says that after facing the acqua alta (high water) emergency last November, museums are facing yet another challenge and there will be without doubt a shortage of revenue. Total lockdown will have an impact in the months ahead and it will take at least 10-12 months before normal operations can be resumed.

“What is interesting is how the digital offer has suddenly become the only activity that museums can offer, not a complimentary one”, says Agnetti. This posed a more far-reaching question of whether digital access should become a paid for service if lockdown continues.

In the medium term, there will be a potential restraint of scientific and cultural projects delivered by museums due to a decrease in resources.

As well as being resourceful, “museums will need to increase international collaboration between institutions. This will benefit not just the cultural projects but all the staff involved in terms of know-how, capacity building, training…)”.

Joan Roca, Director of the MUHBA-Barcelona History Museum, invited us to consider museums as the tip of an iceberg – a complex social, cultural and economic system which is now endangered. Within museums, we have a very diverse group of professionals (increasingly outsourced in the last few years) in conservation and restoration of collection, research, exhibition production, audiovisuals, education, apps, books, visits, participatory social projects…

Many are faced with layoffs, some of which temporary. “Immediate action and a Marshall Plan for culture are needed to protect this fragile network which suffered greatly during the 2008 crisis”, he said.

Museums were already undergoing a process of change and the current crisis can be an opportunity to innovate and do things differently.

“ Confinement sharpens the imagination and it is a good time to think about the future”.
Joan Roca

Inkyung Chang, Founding Director of the Iron Museum, Republic of Korea, shared the results of a recent survey carried out by the Korean Museum Association. 122 museums replied, reporting a decrease in revenue; the income loss for private museums in the month of February amounts to 1 million US dollars. Small, private museums have difficulties in maintenance and employees are laid off or forced to take unpaid vacation due to lack of cashflow.
“The report shows the vulnerability of the sector in this state of emergency, even for a short time, and the economic downturn is inescapable”, she said.

Social distancing, health and safety precautions change social behaviour and affect traditional modes of communication and ways of delivering museum contents. This highlighted a digital literacy discrepancy so museums with smaller budgets have not been able to respond by producing digital content for their audience.

“A digital museum experience does not consist in uploading images and videos – it is totally different from a traditional museum experience. It is a huge potential that has not been explored in great depth”.
Inkyung Chang

We need to train and educate staff members in digital literacy.
Traditionally, an academic background is required in museum professions but digital skillset has to be developed.

Mattia Agnetti urged us to rethink the way we deliver services to the public and manage museums.  This will require an investment in the professionals and in the profile of people working in our museums. This can be done by strengthening the links between museums and universities.  At the moment, there is only an academic link but Agnetti argues for a strengthening of operational links and the opportunity for graduates to enter a museum career.

He also stressed the importance of museums’ needs to cover operational costs in the short and medium term in order to keep alive and reopen their doors, with ad-hoc costs being left to the long term.

Prof. Pierluigi Sacco (IULM University Milan) suggested imagining this scenario as a huge social experiment, a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to restructure the relationship between museums, economy and society with a clear before and after.

How do we react to this new scenario and what kind of changes of attitude are strategically needed? Interesting ideas emerged from the discussion.

Prof. Sacco argues that the level of traffic and digital access to museums has increased so dramatically that it is clear that the possibility of accessing museums in a digital mode has contributed to maintaining people’s psychological wellbeing and mental health.
Prof. Sacco’s key takeaways were:

-Restructuring the museum experience and embracing digital potential: large parts of social constituencies don’t feel at home in museums and feel like they don’t belong but thanks to digital access, the “church-like, reverent experience that some people find intimidating has been redefined with digital access. The previous experience is not outdated but clearly new layers have been added and can create familiarity for many constituencies”.

-Change in attitude for museum professionals: are we prepared for change?To a large extent, we are not – he argues. We need to support the cultural profession financially but a huge capacity-building exercise is also needed. Skills and attitudes needed from culture professionals are profoundly different today. It is important to push innovation in reacting to the crisis.

-Change in engagement: Museums as physical hubs can be intimidating to some but are extremely stimulating for others… How can museums maintain the role of a social and knowledge hub in this new scenario?

-Social impact: a prominent role of museums and cultural institutions in the new scenario (Montreal Museum has created a new ecosystem and an innovative dialogue between culture and health with prescribed museum visits, for example).

The new European Agenda for Culture, published in 2018 by the European Commission, provides us with an interesting blueprint for a massive role of museums and cultural institutions as social platforms.

It is important to think of support but also the proactive reaction of cultural institutions not as endangered species to be supported but as a new engine for social change at a time when culture can play a key role in preserving social cohesion.

Maciej Hofman, from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, shared an insight into policies put in place to alleviate the crisis.

Last week, Commissioner for Innovation, Research and Culture Mariya Gabriel took part in a meeting with 27 EU Cultural Ministers to discuss a coherent response to the situation.

The European Union offers tools such as structural funds and extra funding to mitigate unemployment damages but how they are used is at the discretion of national governments. It is up to advocacy groups and networks to ensure these tools are used for museums and cultural heritage institutions. Last week the Network of European Museum Organisation (NEMO) has released a Covid19 report investigating the impact of the virus on museums across the continent.

The EU is currently negotiating the budget for the next 7 years and it is important that the budget for culture is appropriate.