Museums: Essential or Non-essential?

In a crisis of survival in the aftershock of the novel Covid-19 pandemic, everything that we have taken for granted is questioned: is it considered ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’? Museums are by no means a sacred institution any more than newspapers, educational systems, the music industry, the norms of governance and checks and balances in a democracy, the secular pillars of science, truth seeking and rational discourse, the preservation of the commons, public lands and spaces, good manners, common human decency and decorous behaviour, and so on. All these things hang in the balance right now along with our treasured museums. All of them turn out to be things we have to decide to fight for if we are to keep them, or that must be reinvented to find new relevancy and life.

My Mom, who happens to live in a senior community hard hit by Covid-19, had an aphorism for us when her children were coming of age: ‘If you want to keep a job, make yourself essential.’ In the aftershock of the novel Covid-19 pandemic, if you’re a museum employee, you probably learned over the last two months whether you are considered ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’ in a crisis of survival. Essential in the topsy-turvy world of disaster response has a very specific meaning, it turns out. When a museum tries to hit the pause button and hang on for dear life in a state of suspended animation until the emergency passes, ‘essential’, unless you are in the midst of planning a funded project, probably means you don’t work in the core programmes charged with mission delivery to the visiting public. Essential probably means security, building maintenance, and crisis communications. When survival is at stake, the most basic functions emerge as the prevailing priority. Like the human body when stricken by hypothermia, it’s surprising which functions shut down first and last.

Clue: The essential work is not reflected by what essential workers are paid

If we scan the landscape of America today, something similar is happening in every corner of work and life. Essential now has taken on a surprising meaning. The service workers who distribute our food and medical supplies, who take care of our elderly, the hospital workers, those who teach our kids, who provide security and maintenance, who butcher meat, who provide public transportation, who deliver mail and packages, who so often occupy the lower rungs of the income ladder, are the people still coming to work. Very often that work puts them at a higher risk of infection by the virus. It takes a crisis to reveal how much we rely on them to sustain our lives and yet nothing about the way we’ve treated them in the past is indicative of that vital importance. Imagine what pay structures would be like if workers were paid according to how essential they are to sustaining civilisation? Ironically, millions of other workers, often in higher paid jobs, languish in uncertainty.

Essential institutions begin with essential values

We’ve started to become familiar with the stories of a medical system in extremis, where desperate life or death decisions are made by triage. But, in the early stages of this crisis, we’re also seeing critical values surface, values that until now were lurking below the cognitive surface of our decision-making processes, values that guide triage outside of the medical system and will rock institutions to their core, including museums. All of these values have rationales that existed well before the pandemic hit, but there’s nothing like an emergency to surface the baseline values, those guiding beliefs, commitments, and assumptions that we hold to be essential. On some deep level, those values represent a kind of emotional solace, a code of meanings to be derived from the indiscriminate destruction of the viral outbreak. Our values are a story we will tell ourselves to not only survive, but attach meaning to this experience, and heal. But those values should also cause us to reflect on what is really important. This may sound at first like a process of introspection, as it no doubt must be in part, but as public institutions, museums should be revisiting these values in the public sphere. Most importantly, part of the scope of finding the future of museums should include questioning the very values we thought we adhered to before a pandemic turned our world upside down and changed our notions of what it means to be essential.

Perhaps the process should appear to us at first not as a series of answers, but as a series of questions. This is a time that will challenge us like never before to find creative adaptations and solutions, but the search for solutions begins with identifying the challenges. Without wisely defining the problems, the solutions will not be solutions at all.

Innovation, creative disruption, adaptation, ‘thinking outside of the box’, until now were thought of as optional novelties in museum work, a corner of the field for dabblers and dreamers. Now, with a startling clarity, we are literally locked outside of the box for an unknown period of time. Adaptation is no longer optional. Museums, as notoriously plodding institutions excelling in continuity, are suddenly forced into a place of dramatic disruption which is not of their choosing. As a colleague once said, calling the pace of museums glacial is unfair because glaciers move too quickly. Museums today are a little out of shape to start outrunning glaciers.

One driving desire in our collective recovery is to try to claw our way back to where we were as quickly as possible, to try to repair the damage and regain the ‘normal’. Another is to circle the wagons, retreat to the Alamo, retrench to a place of familiarity, safety and relative comfort. These are natural human impulses. We see this already not only in how our colleagues are identifying essential and non-essential staff, but also in the preliminary schemes outlining the adaptations necessary for reopening. We will design visitor services systems that support social distancing. We will remove the things that might promote the spread of viruses (hands on activities, auditorium programmes, guided tours, and so on). We will, as Nik Honeysett said in a recent Zoom confab, find ‘performative safety’ protocols that telegraph to our public the concern we have for their safety and wellbeing, albeit with less than perfect certainty that all is actually safe.

As much as I can respect the motives behind these strategies to get back to normal, at first glance they all have three things in common – a willingness to settle for a much reduced quality of museum-going experience, an assumption that the old normal is worth recreating in a diminished form, and a habit of mind that our museum-going public are consumers rather than active partners in the creation of museum experiences. At a higher level, before we accept this fate and make it the new covenant we have with the public, we have to ask if this is where our values need to guide us. We need to go back to something essential to actually be essential.

What does the public want?

The devotion shown to us by our public will be the first test and, unlike so many other tests museums traditionally face, this time the test will be existential. In a time where perhaps one out of four or five American working age adults are out of work, and are not paying taxes, for whom survival is the first concern, and where the very kinds of pleasant social activities they used to enjoy now come freighted with menace, there is a lot that will seem superfluous. In the same way that doctors have to make triage decisions about who is worth the investment of medical attention when medical attention is scarce, so our constituencies will be faced with agonising choices about what matters, what is essential to living their lives. Whether or not a museum is essential might be expressed through things as large as state or county budget decisions made under duress, a redirection of the sustaining charitable foundation’s resources to bread and butter community needs, or as granular as a thousand family leisure time decisions made when the bank account is empty, or simple inattention because the museum in town is the last thing to cloud our more limited mind space right now.

Audience researcher Susie Wilkening has already done excellent service in gathering first impressions about what the public are thinking about returning to museums after the pandemic. Colleen Dilenschneider has also contributed quick and revealing work.

Not surprisingly, the thoughts of culture participants are not monolithic. To summarise, the good news is that there are many people who can’t wait to go back to the museum within the next three months, and some of them are not particularly concerned about risks. On the other hand, there are a greater number of cautious prospective museumgoers who are going to be keenly safety-conscious and for whom a novel Covid-19 vaccine would provide the most reassurance. At first glance, the challenges facing museums will not be as steep as for the performing arts, and outdoor institutions such as zoos, botanical gardens, and sculpture parks might actually experience a boom.

What visitors can’t tell us right now is whether the new museum experience, however that devolves, will continue to be attractive. They might imagine, as we would, that there will be less in the way of safe hands-on activities, but they are unlikely to imagine what it will feel like to look at exhibits, objects, and art while trying to maintain distance from other museumgoers. They may already be familiar with the anxiety of food shopping with other customers who are oblivious to safety, but we need food to live; food is essential. Do we need museums enough to overcome the anxiety of sharing space with strangers? Museumgoers may not imagine yet how needing to buy a timed ticket well in advance might affect their motivation. So exactly how we reopen prompts worthwhile questions, but these are primarily functional problems producing stopgap, functional solutions.

What matters?

18 years ago now, Stephen Weil urged us to make museums matter. Though Weil, who died in 2005, might never have imagined a time when so many museums at once were imperilled by the double threat of a pandemic and global economic crisis, he certainly argued that there is a kind of covenant between museums and the community of support necessary for the museum to thrive. Museums, he believed, could prosper in a virtuous circle as long as the public and the museum were in a reciprocal relationship. Museums had to ‘earn their keep’ by being for someone, not merely being about something. He argued for a museum of purposes, not functions, and those purposes are public facing.

Clue: The multitude of red flags, portents and bellwethers

The rippling financial pressures which are now bound to unfold are simply exacerbations of the issues swirling near the surface for years. There have been many canaries in the coal mines, many, many instructive examples in microcosm offering a glimpse of what we now face writ large. Few are the museums fully recovered from the shock of 2008-09, an event that accelerated trends already gnawing at the heels of museums since at least the 1990s.

In 2015, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield faced a state budget reduction so severe, it had a near-death experience. What was striking was not so much that this sort of radical act of defunding might happen in a conservative government cost-cutting move, but that public outcry was virtually non-existent. Instead, it took the actions of the state employees union, rallying on behalf of their membership, to salvage the fate of the museum. After languishing in limbo for nearly a year, the museum has since been slowly creeping back to some semblance of health, but only by charging the first admission fee in its 139-year history. In the process, the staff who were state employees kept their jobs. Their managers were the ones who ultimately proved to be non-essential.

Last year, where I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, a ballot initiative for a modest sales tax increase to alleviate a growing shortfall in countywide support for arts and culture organisations, including museums, was defeated. This might be surprising unless you knew that only 15 percent of households in the county ever patronised those organisations with their attendance. In anecdotal conversations I had with fellow Charlotteans, I heard many express feelings that issues such as affordable housing, gentrification, and economic disparity were more pressing concerns than paying out of pocket to support arts and culture. In the case of Charlotte, a sense of funding scarcity for basic human needs, in a city that is, not incidentally, quite wealthy, did not play out in the favour of museums as voters saw it as a choice of one over the other.

In contrast to Charlotte, the Detroit metro area made the opposite decision in 2012 voting to increase a property tax to support the financially troubled Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Later, in 2014, when the city of Detroit went bankrupt, for a moment it looked possible that the collections of the DIA might be auctioned off to help satisfy the beleaguered city’s creditors since those collections could be seen as city assets. The philanthropic community and the state of Michigan rallied to pay a handsome ransom in the hundreds of millions to the city bankruptcy manager to keep the collections in Detroit. In effect, Detroit as a community doubled down on its support of DIA by acquiring its collections all over again.

These are just some of the instances where the public has signalled loyalty – or lack of loyalty – to the museums it sustains when the crisis comes. Key here is to understand what institutions like DIA in Detroit do that museums in Springfield and Charlotte do not.

Several days ago, in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney called for the elimination of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. The perception that arts and culture as the broad umbrella under which museums so neatly fit, are superfluous and non-essential, is pervasive and will be hard to shake in a crisis of this magnitude. How could this be so? So many red flags and critical indicators have been lurking there for years, with just a little hindsight. By now we all know many school systems never fully brought back museum field trips after the last budget catastrophe of 2008-09. Many of them zeroed out classes in music, art, theatre, languages, even history and science, as the drive to focus increasingly scarce resources on the tested subjects of reading and math and No Child Left Behind became paramount when system budgets dwindled. Many schools let the salaries of their teachers stagnate and were distracted by the tugs of magnet and charter school competition. The overall predicament of public education was one of many meaningful, slow burning harbingers of cultural triage in an atmosphere of scarcity and austerity. If public schools were allowed to crumble, why should we expect that museums would enjoy any special privileges? Now, we learn that New York governor Andrew Cuomo is calling on Bill Gates and his foundation to help the state ‘reimagine’ education in the fall. We can only imagine what that will mean.

Museum sustainability has been the chief anxiety of museum leaders for more than a generation. The number of museums that command more resources today than they did twenty years ago is vanishingly small. Far more numerous are the institutions who have been slowly backed into staff and service reductions, cost-saving measures of all sorts, and ever more desperate attempts to generate revenue. In nearly every significant category of support: individual, corporate, and private foundation philanthropy, national, state and local government subsidies, the overall trend has been down. The pandemic crisis is a precipitating event, a tipping point, in a long series of events that were already well underway.

What is to be done?

Before we find answers, we have to ask the right questions. A certain clarity about the moment is required. In a rapidly shifting social environment, we are learning about the allure of wishful thinking. Oh, how we wish this was all over and we could just carry on as we were! The power of positive thinking will find hard limits on the frontiers of remorseless reality. In a pandemic, wishful thinking can literally have fatal consequences.

So let’s not be deluded. We shouldn’t be at all surprised to find ourselves in a fight for existence, a fight I’m afraid that some of us, too many of us, will ultimately lose. The future of museums is not preordained or guaranteed in a situation like this. Museums are by no means a sacred institution any more than newspapers, higher and lower educational systems, the music industry, the norms of governance and checks and balances in a democracy, the secular pillars of science, truth seeking and rational discourse, the preservation of the commons, public lands and spaces, good manners, common human decency and decorous behaviour, and so on. All of these things hang in the balance right now along with our treasured museums. All of them turn out to be things we have to decide to fight for if we are to keep them, or that must be reinvented to find new relevancy and life. They can no longer be taken for granted. There is no room for complacency.

Going into the struggle, the institutions that cultivated strong support networks and reciprocal traditions in their communities will have advantages and allies in the near term that may make the difference between survival and oblivion. Some will wear the protective armour of handsome endowments that, if they can’t entirely insulate a museum from external shocks, at least protect the corpus from complete liquidation. Other institutions, being lean and nimble, creative and resourceful, with few immediate debts and obligations, will be able to pivot quickly by cultivating new alliances and shedding the fatal encumbrances of the past. Museums that never saw the point in being community-centred, or tamped down innovation and initiative, that lacked a vision beyond the most perfunctory continuity strategies, will be the most vulnerable. Though we should take time to properly grieve our losses, nostalgia for what we once had will be of limited utility going forward. We’re not going to have a lot of time for sentimentality.

The values

Let’s return to values, the things of mission statements, boardroom battles, and internecine struggles, the basic conceptual building blocks upon which institutions are said to rest and wrestle. In our experience, most museums will make a nod to preservation (of material culture) and service (to the public) in their mission statements. Few, however, will openly acknowledge overriding, deep attachments to such over-my-dead-body values as connoisseurship, prestige, research and scholarship, revenue generation, social justice, service to schools, interested stakeholders of every stripe, donor cultivation, political expediency, and any number of conflicting and divergent values that only surface in the crucible of an emergency and are sacred cows incredibly hard to even question, let alone slaughter. It is with some sadness and resignation I say that it is probably better that we decide together which cows will go to the abattoir than have others do it for us. But I should also add that there are no sacrifices worth making that don’t also provide at least the potential for real gains if wisdom is exercised and the guiding values are relevant.

An incomplete set of framing questions in search of creative answers in no particular order:


Published the 7th of May 2020 on the blog of Dan Spock ‘Wunderkammer’. On this blog, Spock organises his research, essays, reviews, and talks on the museum field and makes them more broadly accessible.

Republished by permission of the Author.

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