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Communicating change and marketing a Museum while closed for redevelopment

Whenever a museum or gallery closes its doors for redevelopment fears and emotions run high. Visitors lament the loss of experiences, spaces and facilities they love. Scholars fear they won’t be able to access the materials they need for research. And sponsors worry their brands won’t receive the exposure they’re paying for.

Add in staff, volunteers and the local community, all concerned about what this means for them, and it’s obvious that closing a museum presents major communication challenges both within and beyond the organisation.

None of these feelings should come as a surprise. Taking the decision to close a museum’s doors means choosing to implement disruptive change. Not only is ‘business as usual’ an impossibility, but, by definition, the museum building and facilities are likely to be very different at the end of a redevelopment project. These changes penetrate even further when organisations use periods of closure to reinvent themselves in other ways, such as redefining their brand or setting new organisational goals.

Marketing during periods of closure, then is an exercise in change communications. For many museums it also involves working with new partners and brands.

How to communicate during change

People react to disruptive change in different ways, at varying paces. Almost everyone will experience some level of anxiety or denial before they accept and embrace what’s happening. Marketing teams therefore need to acknowledge the emotional context in which information about temporary closures will be received.

One organisation that actively embraced this context is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Three months before the Museum’s expansion project forced a closure of two and a half years, the SFMOMA On the Go campaign launched with a low-budget video showing staff’s shocked reactions to the news.

The video asked viewers to share “what you’re nervous, scared, excited, confused about” via the hashtag #SFMOMAgo. The social media team then used these responses to make another video sharing more information about the expansion project.

While some people’s fear of change is purely emotional, others have more practical concerns. For instance, members may fear they are wasting their money if they can’t physically visit the museum to use their benefits. Engaging members in the excitement of the redevelopment programme and partnering with other organisations to provide an attractive offer during the closure can each play a role here.

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum emailed its members regularly during its own temporary closure. These communications shared Museum news along with deals on local art-related events. The membership timeframe was also extended in order to add value. These steps allowed the Museum to maintain income from membership fees during its three-year closure.

Overall, marketers working in a changing environment need to keep multiple stakeholder groups informed about what is happening in the here and now while also building interest and excitement in what the future holds. If funding has been secured on the basis of making collections more accessible, they also need to engage and attract people who may never have visited the ‘old’ museum.

How can marketing and communications staff plan for closure communications?

Emily Dodgson, Marketing and Communications Manager at London’s Courtauld Gallery, which closed its doors for around two years in September 2018, has two key tips for anyone tackling the complex challenge of closure communications: plan as early as possible and start by identifying all the benefits associated with the project. That way, every single piece of communication that shares information about change can be accompanied by clear, positive messages.

For The Courtauld, planning has involved everything from auditing all the places where information about the Gallery is publicly listed to conducting audience research around the future visitor experience.

Planning also involves thinking about when, where and how to release information. The Courtauld started sharing news of its plans the moment it received phase 1 redevelopment funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund. This was a full two years before it closed its doors to begin building work.

Strategic press pitches at this time resulted in an article in the arts pages of the Guardian national newspaper, which focused on the Gallery’s plans to loan works of art to regional museums across the UK. It’s a great example of leading with the good news of widening access to the collections rather than emphasising more disruptive aspects of the project.

As the closure date approached, The Courtauld worked with London-based press to encourage local people to visit via ‘last chance to see’ messaging. Communications during the closure emphasised the transformational nature of the redevelopment while providing information about where else to see works from the collection.

Dodgson is committed to making her colleagues’ lives as stress-free as possible. She delivered regular briefings to front-of-house staff and membership services in the run up to closing and provided guidance on answering frequently asked questions. Leaflets were also printed for distribution to visitors and members. And Dodgson made herself as available as possible, so she could answer any questions, and allay any concerns, as soon as they arose.

All this activity was supported by dedicated webpages about the project and its aims. Of course, some people may still end up at the Gallery only to find the doors closed. Information about the transformation project was therefore provided at the main entrance and on construction hoardings, along with massive prints of famous artworks from the collection.

Deliberately conceived to offer a ‘selfie moment’, these visuals are another example of offering something positive to counteract the disappointment someone may experience when they aren’t able to visit the Gallery.

Working with partners

As well as showing individual works around the UK, The Courtauld developed two major exhibitions in conjunction with the National Gallery in London and the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) in Paris. A tour of Japan was also organised.

The Courtauld Gallery marketing whilst closed

From a marketing perspective, this meant agreeing protocols for devolved marketing activities. For instance, FLV were given carte blanche to use images of any Courtauld artwork on social media, so long as The Courtauld was tagged in each post. If the works were to be changed or animated in any way, FLV would, however, check before posting. This gave FLV freedom to implement its own social media strategy, while Courtauld staff felt confident about how the Gallery’s works might be shared.

The marketing activities of these partner organisations drove brand awareness for The Courtauld on a scale and budget the Gallery would never usually be able to achieve. While this was built around the existing Courtauld brand, some museums choose to develop a temporary, travelling identity.

How have museums used temporary identities during redevelopments?

When the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis closed for just over a year it ran events around the city under the banner, ‘Walker Without Walls’.

Walker Without Walls included an artist-designed mini golf course in the Center’s sculpture garden, music and movie screenings in a city park and a 14-metre long advertising billboard in downtown Minneapolis displaying specially commissioned artworks.

Uniting these events under a common museum brand ensured that people attending activities within other venues were aware of the institution running them. The Walker therefore remained in the public eye with regular audiences, while expanding its reach to those who may never have visited.

SFMOMA used the tagline ‘Closed for construction, yet more open than ever’ during its temporary closure. On one level this reflected the access local residents were given to its collection during the expansion project, via six co-organised exhibitions in other Bay Area museums.

On another level, the phrase hints at being open to new ideas. Indeed, in the press release announcing SFMOMA’s off-site programming, Director Neal Benezra said the organisation was rethinking “who we want to be in the future” and using the period of closure to build a new understanding of its place in the community.

Learning from the experience

SFMOMA’s attitude highlights an important aspect of redevelopment projects that can all too easily be overlooked if people focus their energy wholly on delivering a physical outcome. When a museum is closed, marketers have an opportunity to explore and experiment with new ways of engaging audiences.

Working with new partners, who may interpret collections or engage communities in unexpected ways, can open an institution’s eyes to alternative strategies. Even better, working directly with communities who are new to the museum can lead to deeper understanding of these audiences and their needs.

All this learning can be put to good use once the museum reopens, an occasion many mark with a major splash.

What do museums do to mark their reopening?

The most obvious way to mark a reopening is by hosting a party. As with any museum marketing event, it’s important to consider what, exactly, this party is celebrating and who it is for. It should also reflect the overall values and mission of the organisation and its, perhaps newly revamped, brand.

Given the range of stakeholders affected by major redevelopments, many organisations end up hosting several opening events. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto (MOCA Toronto) marked its move to a new building with events for donors, the local community and the general public. The Design Museum in London included an exclusive preview event for members and a party for staff and suppliers. Each of these events thanked a different group of people for their support throughout the project and built important relationships for the future.

When the National Museum of the American Indian reopened in 2004 it hosted a six-day festival of music, dance and storytelling. On opening day 20,000 members of more than 500 American Indian tribes made a ceremonial march to the Museum. The march celebrated the relaunch of the Museum, but it also served as a celebration of American Indian culture in the present day. This supported the Museum’s mission of acting as a resource for Native communities.

Some museums offer extended opening hours following their relaunch or waive admission fees. A particularly impressive example of this is the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, which stayed open 24 hours a day for a full week after it had been closed for a decade.

In one sense celebration parties and special visitor offers like this mark the end of a major project. Yet they are really the beginning of a new incarnation of the museum, an incarnation that sets up new challenges for marketers. These might include marketing new types of programming, working with new communities or bedding in a new brand – all while managing the needs and expectations of ‘old’ visitors.

Even when the physical disruption is over, change continues. The organisations who take time to reflect and learn during their closure will be the ones best placed to make the most of that change.

About the author – Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty is a writer, trainer and consultant who collaborates with museums to find and share stories in an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She shares her passion for audience-focused approaches to content development with students at City University, London and University of the Arts London.

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