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Covid created a change in mindset in museums, now what will we do with it?

We’ve witnessed unimaginable human adaptability this year, with new ways of working, digital transformation and bold action.

We’ve learnt that in challenging circumstances, we can adapt quickly and out of necessity we’ve seen change accelerate.

Many of these changes will be critical as we move beyond this crisis, but perhaps most important is a need to recognise that change is possible.

Museums are famously bureaucratic, moving incrementally, but we’ve shown that when faced with a crisis, we can quickly reorientate to take on challenges and find new ways to serve our audiences.

We now see that our systems are not immovable; change is not beyond us.

Plans which were set to take years or months to happen have been actioned in a matter of weeks.

Much of this progress comes from shifts in operating models. Clear goals, focused teams, and rapid decision making has replaced museum bureaucracy.

Many museum leaders are reflecting on how small, agile teams built in a hurry to deal with COVID made essential decisions faster and better.

They are rewiring how decisions are made, and institutions that can embrace these forms of speedy and effective decentralisation will be better placed coming out of the crisis.

Now, as the world begins to look beyond COVID, we must commit to not going back. We need to embrace these new ways of working and apply them to other problems facing society.

And the global health crisis has been the tipping point that has brought many problems that we knew existed to the surface.

We have seen Black Lives Matter protests around the world as people voiced their anger at racism, police violence, inequality and economic disparity.

Here too lies an opportunity as we emerge from the health crisis.

Museums are built on a foundation of white supremacy and colonialism and having found during the Covid crisis that we can move quickly and make change happen; this is undoubtedly an area that requires bold action.

How can we decolonise our museums? How can we bring non-white narratives into our exhibitions? How can we make sure that our boards, our leadership and our staff at every level reflect the populations of the cities that they serve?

Change has been talked about at museum conferences and publications for several years, and undoubtedly some has happened. But let’s move beyond incremental changes, take bold action and transform our organisations.

The Climate Crisis is another issue that we can’t afford to ignore.

The impact of this will dwarf the disruption that we’ve seen this year if we do not act. In 2019 the UN stated that we need to reduce carbon emissions by 7.6% year on year for the next decade to avert climate catastrophe.

To put that into context. The impact of the Covid lockdowns, reduced industrial output and a dramatic reduction in air travel throughout 2020 is likely to reduce emissions by between 7% – 8%.

So a 7.6% reduction means a massive change to the way we live our lives.

But sentiment is changing. 70% of Brits believe that we should respond to climate change with the same urgency as we have the Covid crisis, and an even bigger percentage 93% said that as lockdowns ease, the government and employers should encourage lifestyle changes to cut emissions.

Here in the UK, we’re seeing a shift towards more people working from home, with many people looking to move out of cities.

How can museums play a role in helping their communities to be more sustainable? Could they act as community lending libraries or repair shops, so people don’t need to buy so much stuff? Can they encourage visitors to use public transport or to visit online?

Inequality and the Climate Crisis are just two of the challenges that I think museums could use their trusted voices to address. There are others, and perhaps your starting point is elsewhere.

Whatever the challenge I think the important thing is the embrace the get shit done attitude of the pandemic and make change happen.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now splits his time between delivering consultancy, innovation workshops and keynote presentations.

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