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The pandemic has represented one of the most challenging periods in living memory for the arts and culture sector. So, MuseumNext wanted to know how you’ve handled the stress, strain and uncertainty of the last 12 months.
We sent questionnaires out to 17,500 members of the MuseumNext community in January – including representatives from art galleries, history museums, maritime museums, archaeological museums, natural history museums and more – and here’s what we’ve learnt from your experiences.
Budget constraints and, of course, the virus itself presented huge challenges for museums in 2020. But as institutions tried to battle through the day-to-day other challenges presented themselves, too. Indeed, 16% of respondents to our survey said that a lack of in-house digital skills made running their museum difficult.
Institutions across the cultural landscape were forced to take matters online through periods of lockdown, but many respondents told us they didn’t have the digital skills on hand to make the most of this, with one respondent claiming that it was like “the blind leading the blind”.
Respondents felt the pressure of “competing with the world” on digital platforms, without necessarily possessing the required knowledge. In fact, 13.2% of respondents highlighted a lack of knowledge regarding digital platforms and marketing as a significant challenge.
Similarly, 14% of respondents said that a lack of resources presented further struggles, while another 14% highlighted that a shortage of staff for long periods of the pandemic made working conditions increasingly difficult. Of the museum staff that continued to work throughout 2020, fatigue and low morale were also cited as common issues.
Despite initial concerns and trepidation about the move to a digital museum experience, many institutions managed to accomplish much in the online space. When asked about their digital successes over the past year, one in five respondents said that increased social media usage had proved itself to be their most fruitful endeavour. From live concerts to podcasts, home-schooling to online collections, social media provided the platform museums needed to keep interest alive.
One respondent reported a “huge increase in digital engagement” during the pandemic, while others cited the value of social sharing and popular museum hashtags like #MuseumFromHome, #MuseumsUnlocked and #ArtInQuarantine as crucial in getting the public involved.
Video content was another area of success, with 18.4% of respondents listing video as their most valuable source of content and communication. Virtual tours and AR experiences were highlighted by numerous museums as their greatest success during the COVID-19 crisis.
Weekly digital newsletters, online gift shops and even a partnership with BBC Bitesize were all offered as examples of museum innovation and pivoting in action.
Of course, 2020 was not just about the pandemic. A year of great upheaval encouraged many museums to use their newfound digital platform to highlight urgent issues surrounding justice and equality. One respondent identified their museum’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement as the greatest digital success of 2020, while another said they had found success with projects highlighting human rights, racism and LGBTQIA+ issues.
Museums were forced to get familiar with a wide range of digital platforms and tools in 2020, but perhaps unsurprisingly it was video conferencing platforms that saw the most use.
More than a third (34%) of respondents listed video platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meets and Skype as the digital tools they became most familiar with last year.
Aside from conferencing tools Instagram (10%) was a regularly utilised platform, followed by YouTube (8%), Facebook (5.6%) and TikTok (3.2%). Used primarily to connect directly with their audience, video features such as IGTV and Facebook Live proved themselves to be highly beneficial.
Other museums took a different route with their content marketing efforts during 2020. MailChimp and Spotify were recognised as being valuable tools by representatives from marketing teams – typically as a means of sharing newsletters and podcasts respectively. Others mentioned iMovie Edits, VR platforms and Matterport 360 as vital software tools that enabled the creation of digital. Management tools like Trello also proved useful for remote workers.
2021 is still largely unknown territory for museums, and many are concerned about how to successfully create a ‘hybrid’ museum experience as the world begins to open up again.
One thing is for sure, however, more content is on the cards. When asked what their digital focus will be for the coming year, almost half (46%) of respondents said making more content was their top priority.
For some, this will be a way of building on the foundations laid down in 2020. For others, it’s a way of reactivating a latent visitor base or, in some cases, to pave the way into online selling. One museum highlighted the need for higher quality content rather than greater quantity: “Doing less but better” was the mantra of one respondent.
18% of respondents named education as their primary digital focus for 2021 – be it in the form of workshops, schooling or ensuring staff members are equipped with the necessary skills to progress. This is perhaps in preparation for the inevitable challenges to come, including “figuring out which digital features to keep when things open up again”, as one respondent put it.
Sustainability and accessibility were also highlighted as key factors covered in the survey. Some respondents suggested that they plan to use digital platforms to ensure their content can be seen and enjoyed by an even wider audience.
Despite the heartening news of COVID-19 vaccines being deployed around the world, we all know that the restrictions imposed by the pandemic will continue to inhibit museums for many months to come. So it’s not surprising to learn that many of the challenges museums faced in 2020 remain concerns in 2021.
Almost a quarter (23%) of respondents suggested that a lack of digital skills will continue to be their biggest challenge in the coming year. Respondents highlighted a “lack of appreciation by senior and middle management” regarding the importance of digital knowledge, as well as “leadership not understanding the role digital plays.”
More than one in five (21%) of respondents are most worried about budget constraints and financial issues in the coming year, especially as there is currently no firm end to the pandemic in sight. It was suggested that this scenario could deepen problems amongst museums that have already found themselves in a precarious position through the enforced closures of 2020. Furthermore, 17.6% of respondents worry that staff shortages, staff burnout and a lack of staff training will hold them back in the coming year.
Burnout and “Corona-fatigue” among both museum workers and visitors were highlighted as hurdles which will need to be addressed as we emerge from the pandemic. Others worry about the sheer uncertainty of things to come, and the rapidly shrinking assumption that things will one day return to “normal”.
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