‘We should test our assumptions about what people want from us’

The Covid-19 crisis offers museums a chance to hold on to the best of the old ways while forging a new path
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Zak Mensah
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Like all good organisations, we have disaster plans, back-up plans and alternative plans. Museums are very good at preparing for the worst-case scenarios in order to mitigate risks, and have survived through all types of life-changing activity.
It is, after all, our aim to protect our buildings and collections and to serve our public for the long haul under an unknowable future.  Ultimately it was the sheer scale, scope and speed of closing down to fight the coronavirus spread that has had the biggest impact on us.
The pandemic will eventually subside but some of the changes we’ve undergone already and others we will need to go through may not be reversible.  
We’re a local authority-run service and the council now has a major financial challenge. Added to this, our own commercial services stopping overnight and recovery is expected to be very slow.   The emotional labour of uncertainty will be a hard challenge for us all, along with the likelihood of less jobs as the sector races to meet budget. 
Because every business plan has effectively been thrown out, everything can be revisited and some of our old ways can be permanently left to the past.
Many have toyed with the idea of remote working and we’ve now proved it is possible as a default way of operating. Not the only way, but I welcome having more options. Think what those office spaces could be used for instead – new public spaces, more storage?  
I do hope we can move away from the idea that we need to be onsite all day and that we can adopt more flexible ways of working. This may help to widen the net for recruitment and drive workforce diversity.  
One our successes has been a great improvement in our ability to have effective communication. Using  a digital communication tool (Basecamp) that works on any device has for the first time allowed us all to have the same rhythm and be more inclusive.  
Two of our biggest unique selling points, our buildings and our collections, have still been cared for. This has been done through fleeting essential visits and from our kitchen tables using online collection tools. But hopefully, our staff and our audiences cannot wait to be  reunited with our collections. It has been a joy to see a team of teams approach to our very real challenges, including engaging online and planning social-distancing measures that still deliver a world-class museum experience.  
I hope that we can be brave enough to forge a path that holds on to the best of the old ways but subtly adjusts to new ways of working. It should be an environment where an online visit is just as valid as a physical visit and we are all focused on the needs of our audiences.  
In the short term, all our visitors will be local and this is an opportunity to dive deeply into how we can best delight them and make them true fans forever, rather than sometimes being seen as a tourist spot.  
The sector should actively test all our assumptions about what people want from us. Hopefully it will turn out that we have been sorely missed.  
The marathon continues. 
Zak Mensah is the head of transformation at Bristol Culture

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