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Post Covid Balancing Act: A Strategy Primer for Museums 

When we reopen ours doors it will not be business as usual. This pandemic will impact our world in profound and lasting ways.  Museums, by definition, are places to gather and interact, so we have the potential to be hit hard by an environmental challenge that demands distancing.  We have an opportunity to respond thoughtfully and responsibly to this new normal, but it involves a willingness to change the way we do business.  We are up against the delicate balancing act between making our visitors feel both welcome and safe.

Physical barriers create mental barriers

Imagine the worst case scenario for opening day.  Your visitors come into the museum. Protective plastic shields have been placed at your reception desk and coat room.  Your staff members are standing across the ticket counter wearing N95 masks. A sign states that visitors without masks will be turned away. It’s raining and ticket lines, set to maintain six foot distances, are extending out the door. Can you think of anything less welcoming? The first five minutes of your visitor experience sets the tone, and if we are not thoughtful, our visitors will not return. Worse, they may share this bad experience on one of the many platforms we use to promote our sites.

What is the alternative? We can start by using these necessary barriers as an opportunity to engage. Masks are a perfect example. If you want to ensure visitor safety by requiring them to wear masks, provide them for free. If you want the masks to convey a more welcoming message, offer them in bright colors, print the material with images from your collection, or add an emotional tagline.  Be equally thoughtful of the masks your staff members are wearing.  They too should be bright and welcoming, perhaps using your site’s branding.

Tipping point

If we are respecting social distancing once our sites open, we have to reevaluate occupancy standards. This goes far beyond determining the maximum number of people allowed inside your museum at one time, or even allowed in one room. Most museums occupancy rates are set at 15 to 30 sq. ft. per person. Currently the CDC “social distancing recommendation” is four plus times this space needed per person. What does that mean, practically, for our spaces? To accommodate that kind of change, we need to reevaluate the museum experience and reimagine our exhibits.

Bottlenecks

A walkthrough with your floorplan is imperative. How do people move through your site? Where do they gather? Where are your problem areas? The visitor experience begins before they enter the exhibit and continues after they have left. So your walkthrough should mark up your lobby, reception desk, coat check and ticketing areas as well as your shop.

You may need to delineate queues with stanchions or set wait lines in your lobby ensuring people stand six feet apart. Can your lobbies accommodate these increased space demands? Are there exterior spaces you can adapt? Can you protect them from the elements?  Do you need to limit the number of people who can enter at one time? Is timed ticketing an option for your site? No matter what you plan to implement, always consider how these adaptations will impact visitor experience.

No one likes to wait

Surprise! People get impatient when they have to wait in line, especially if they are inconvenienced further by standing out in the rain or cold. You may have made your visitors safer, but in doing so you may have also inconvenienced them. This will affect future visits and reviews. What can you do? You may want to encourage time savers such as advance ticket purchase on line. Or alternately, you can add interpretation in your lobby areas to keep your visitors occupied while they wait.  You already have a space issue in your lobby, so setting up displays is likely to cause more bottlenecks.  Offer a QR code, push notification or a link to a activity on your website or app, or even consider a link to a survey asking for input from your visitors about their expectations and needs.

These content ideas reflect a necessary shift away from museum owned devices to visitor owned devices, taking away the burden and liability of sanitizing in house devices. If you are offering audio tours from hand held devices or you have an app, signage along the queue is the perfect place to direct people how to download it onto to their phones while they wait. Are you on a tight budget and prefer low tech? Have small signs along the line, alternating between trivia questions and answers. Whatever you do, make it fun, easy and inviting.

Making the hard choices

Many of our exhibits were designed specifically so that our visitors gather at various junctures like introductory interpretive signs or group interactive areas. Should you remove interpretive signage, shut down your interactive stations? Cancel your group tours? How can you convey content if your tools are no longer considered safe?

The key here is to map the exhibit.  Note every problem area. Ask the hard questions. What is the essential content, and what can be sacrificed as you adapt your exhibits? How can that content be provided safely and still engage your audience? What tools do you have to work with? Are there safety measures you can add, such as the installation of sanitizing stations, wait lines or brief signage to encourage visitors to practice social distancing.

You can lead a horse to water

Remember that while you can add safety measures, you may not be able to accurately monitor whether your visitors are following the safety protocols you have set. This may be easier for smaller museums which have more direct interaction with the public, lower visitations per day, and a stronger repeat customer base from their local communities. It is less likely to be successful at larger museums, who draw from a regional or national base of often one time visitors.

Phase your opening

Especially for these larger museums, it may be better to re-open your site in phases. Take stock of your staffing resources and exhibit changes. Start with the areas that are more easily controlled. Pick one or two signature galleries to open initially. This will give you the opportunity to beta test the implementation of signage, safety measures and new technology.  It may also lessen initial expenditures while giving you time to develop quality content. More complex safety issues may affect areas like your cafe which can re-open later once you feel you can meet the safety standards required.

Protocols

Whatever measures you decide to take to prepare for reopening, you need to establish clear protocols with both your staff and your visitors.  Let them know what will be different, how you will be protecting them and what behavioral changes you expect from them.

For your staff it may be training them how to keep a clean and safe environment; to be welcoming when informing the public about new procedures; how to respond if someone is ill on the premises; or how to diplomatically approach visitors who are not following safety protocols.  Don’t leave this up chance. Develop welcoming language. Make sure that your staff conveys to visitors that they, and your new protocols, are there to keep them safe.

You must establish expectations for your visitors even before they arrive on site. Your message should be consistent. There should be language on the website, on signage in the lobby and throughout the museum, as well as being delivered verbally by your front of house staff. This is especially important when you resume school programming.  Materials need to be provided to the teachers, giving them the tools they need to prepare the students for visits.

Getting your bang for your buck

Many museums are considering where to invest funds to best support them when they reopen. My top five recommendations are:

• Automation of toilets, sinks, soap and towel dispensers, and doors (exterior and bathrooms).  Go a step further and replace push button interactive stations with motion sensor activators.

• Increasing your cleaning budget to support a more robust cleaning schedule.

• Establishing safety measures for your front of house staff and visitors, like installing a glass shield at your reception desk and sanitizing stations throughout the museum.

• Provide free disposable/ washable masks for your visitors.  Go the extra mile; add your museum branding.

• Spring for content development for personal hand held devices (website activities, audio tours, customer service survey, or interactive app).

We are in this together

No one museum or museum professional will come up with all of the answers. Each museum is unique and the approach we take to respond to the profound changes we are facing will be equally unique. But if we create an environment of sharing and support, we can navigate these uncharted times together. We can inspire others with our successes and save them hardships by sharing where we have failed. We can, and should, strive to be both resourceful and a resource.

About the author – Amy Hollander

Amy Hollander is a storyteller, exhibit designer and a strategic planner with 20 years’ experience in the Museum field.  She established her company, Cloud Mill, LLC to help museums navigate 21st century challenges.  She works with institutions to strengthen their programs, policies and performance. Her focus is on developing comprehensive strategies that utilize modern tools and employ holistic solutions to address existential issues.

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