How do museums maintain relevance and cover operating expenses when patrons are not allowed inside their buildings?
When the coronavirus hit, businesses around the world were forced to close to prevent the spread of the disease. Public spaces like museums were included in the closures and about 85,000 institutions (90% of museums worldwide) shuttered their establishments. Many of these museums operated on revenue from admissions, gift store purchases, and fundraising events. With these revenue streams blocked, museums have been exhausting their savings to cover expenses. Because of this challenge, UNESCO and the International Council of Museums think 1 in 8 museums worldwide may not reopen when shelter-in-place orders lift. In America, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) did a survey of 760 museums in August, 2020 and approximately 33% of American institutions don’t think they’ll be able to reopen.
Globe-Miami is fortunate to have two local museums, Bullion Plaza Cultural Center and Museum (BPCCM) and the Gila County Historical Museum (GCHM). Both of these organizations have been dramatically impacted by COVID and closed since early March. Now they are working to reinvent themselves to be both visible and viable during the current pandemic. This involves operating in ways they have never before had to consider.
“It’s no longer about thinking outside the box, it’s about removing the box,” says Tom Foster, Director of BPCCM. “What can we do outside of walls and a ceiling to extend our reach so we can pull people back in, people we’ve lost since we’re not open? … Relevance and invisibility sort of work together because we have to let people know we exist. Even though there’s a sign on the door that says, ‘Closed until further notice,’ I’m still working in here. I’m trying to get things done, finishing exhibits, handling billing and financial stuff, writing grants, whatever. Just because we’re closed doesn’t mean we’re not accomplishing things.”
Foster believes technology is the key to remaining relevant in our new reality. “What is becoming more and more prevalent is virtual. We’re in the middle of the Darwinian concept of ‘adapt to survive’. We can’t bring people here, so we bring what we have to offer to them until we can bring them back… It’s just basically trying to move away from the box, out of the box, abandoning the box maybe in the standpoint of this temporary period of time and reaching out into the electronic ether. It’s out there and waiting for us to use it.”
One way BPCCM is embracing technology is through a partnership grant they are pursuing with the Miami Public Library focused on history and education. Through the grant, they plan to interview local authors and various experts on topics that impact our region (like the effect of the Woodbury fire or the history of the Salado people), create short videos that are published on YouTube, then embed links to the videos on the museum’s website and social media accounts. These videos will expose people to new concepts that the library and museum can support with displays and resources once they reopen.
“The museum is a classroom. We’re educators,” explains Foster. “We’re trying to make it interesting enough and relevant enough for youth to go, ‘Wow, this is better than playing a game!’ It’s the whole idea of excitement and lighting a fire, especially when there’s so many distractions and more immediately rewarding experiences for young people.”
While BPCCM is investigating ways to engage youth, the GCHM is looking at ways to support individuals looking into their own heritage. Director Sheldon Miller states, “Family research has gone way up during COVID. People have more time to chase the history of their lineage.” To support this, GCHM has five dedicated volunteers (Linda Lopez, Bob Freese, Lynn and Vernon Perry, and Kenneth Johnson) who invest hundreds of hours accessing museum resources for people who cannot physically utilize the museum’s archives while the building is closed.
Like Foster, Miller also emphasizes the role technology plays in remaining accessible and relevant to the community, and acknowledges that this has not come easily to him and his cadre of older volunteers.
“If there‘s a blessing in COVID, it’s pushed many of us into technology.” He states they are interacting with the public through a “contact us” button on their website, working to enhance future displays with interactive electronic interfaces within the museum, and striving to get more resources available electronically like the Old Dominion Days history lectures and even the 150 recently donated antique Globe-Miami postcards. When reopened, Miller states, “We expect to have iPads and tablets available for guests that further explain displays and deep dive into our history, like explaining what pasties and cheese boats are.”
Museums must be relevant and visible in the community, but they also need financial resources to keep their programs alive. Alarmingly, we’re approaching a cliff in museum funding and viability.
Most museums are inching along on savings right now, but many cannot survive past 2021. “Their funding will be exhausted. There’s an insurmountable precipice ahead,” states Foster. His assessment is supported by the AAM finding that 87% of American museums report they have 12 months or less of financial reserves to cover operating expenses. While museums desperately need funding, they cannot implement their previously successful revenue-generating programs and, consequently, they are scrambling for new revenue streams.
GCHM usually raises funds through Hamburger Frys and the multi-day Old Dominion Days festival. Because these events have been cancelled, they are planning to create a calendar of historic regional postcards to sell this year as their alternative fundraiser. GCHS also receives some of their funding through the City of Globe’s bed tax fund, a revenue stream linked to tourism. BPCCM does not get bed tax funding because “we only have 4-6 beds in Miami,” Foster explained. Instead, BPCCM applies for grants from foundations, nonprofits, and state and federal programs. “A lot of what you see is because of Freeport. They’ve been one hell of a partner in the past.” Unfortunately, many grants were suspended in the midst of the uncertainty of COVID. BPCCM has been bridging the gaps with special gifts, some large like $60,000 from Congressman Pastor to restore and open two new exhibit rooms upstairs, and some smaller like the $250 sent out-of-the-blue from an individual who lives in California.
During the COVID pandemic, many small rural museums in Arizona received funding support through the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security” (CARES) Act. Fortunately, both GCHM and BPCCM received initial $9,000 and $10,000 grants from the Arizona Humanities Council and plan to apply for a second round of support. But even with this infusion of cash, Foster states, “It’s hard. Looking at the financials and the outflow of money is grim.”
Looking to the future, Foster cannot predict if our local museums will remain open. He hopes so and predicts “things will be different, but not catastrophic. We need to take a breath, think about what is happening, and then determine how we can effect positive change.”
Thea Wilshire works as an author, psychologist, speaker, healthcare consultant, and AirBnB host. Her passions include community development, the creation of public spaces, trying new adventures, and sharing her therapy dog with schools and medical facilities. Find her blog at https://www.acornconsulting.org/blog.