The pandemic has provided an unprecedented opportunity for change in museums in a way that has never happened before. Reduced access to a physical site and collections for prolonged periods of time has meant most museums have had to experiment by rethinking ways to engage, and learning new skills and engagement techniques. We have all become Zoom and webinar experts and are having to create digital strategies and expertise where none existed before.
At Bucks Museum we were already on a journey of transformation before the pandemic, with a capital project to replace 25-year-old galleries with new displays to tell the story of Bucks people and landscapes. We had started building community relationships over the past few years, collecting contemporary stories and objects that are more representative of communities that live and work in Bucks.
But the culture shift from provision of programmes to collaboration, co-production and finally to decision-making about what happens at the museum has taken time. The pandemic has made us realise that the core role of museums needs to be shaped by a dialogue with our audiences and that this dialogue needs to be ongoing, not a one-off, and needs to allow audiences to make decisions and create vision and purpose together in order to be relevant to people now.
The silver lining of the pandemic has been that is has given time for staff who are normally engaged in delivery round the clock to virtually meet new partners, consult with audiences and begin to plan programmes and services that fit community need together.
During the recent lockdowns, from January, our new art show with Bucks Art Society and Tony Hart artworks closed after only being open for two days in December. Like many other museums, we created online tours of the exhibition, artist videos for the website and a webinar with the artists discussing their stories and inspiration.
We have run several webinars now, which always result in feedback from many people participating saying that even without coronavirus they could not have come to the museum due to mobility issues and that it was an absolute joy to be able to connect with us and our collections from the comfort of their own homes.
We had not really appreciated before that there was a whole audience out there we were not serving due to access issues, or how important it was to them to feel included. Some of the audience joining us turned out to be from other countries, so online programming completely broke down physical barriers and new audiences from all over the world were now possible.
The webinar also gave unique access to the artists – set stories and interpretation in the exhibition could not provide personal access and engagement with the artists in this way. We learned that this blended approach has many more benefits than just offering a way for people to access something on-line because they can't visit it in person, and will be a part of our programming for a long time to come.
So how will all this affect museums in the long term? The post-Covid world will mean the need to create new business and funding models to adapt to the current situation in order to survive but also as a chance to transform the organisation for the better and put into practice lessons learnt from the pandemic.
Our new skills and digital engagement will now be core tools for future programming and Zoom meetings are probably here to stay, although our need to have human contact will ensure they don’t take over completely!
What have we learned
- New skills and ways to engage – experimenting with ideas
- The unexpected benefits of digital engagements and growth of new audiences
- The importance of collaborations with your audience crucial for relevance to communities in post-Covid world
What changes will stay in long run
- Blended approach, with online to stay
- The best bits of new ways of working to be incorporated as permanent feature in post-Covid organisational operation
- Consultations and collaborations the core of purpose and future programmes
- New business and funding models to adapt, survive and thrive
Sue Shave is the museum director of Bucks County Museum. She is among the speakers at a Museums Association Members' Meeting on 11 March in a session about what museums have learned from the pandemic and how this might impact their organisations in the long term