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How museums can move forward in the age of social distancing
A worker disinfects the Royal Mummies Hall at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, on March 23, 2020. Khaled DESOUKI / AFP.

by Grace McCormick

NEW YORK, NY.- So, the doors are shut. Now what?

Arts and cultural centers have heavily relied on in-person visitors in the past. Now, they have to find new ways to continue their missions and support their communities digitally. Every institution will find itself with its own unique dilemmas, but here are some ways consultants and museum professionals suggest art and cultural institutions find their way through this pandemic:

Take some time to build a strong foundation.
Museum & nonprofit digital strategy consultant Koven Smith said for institutions that don’t have the digital expertise or resources to help them pivot to online-only engagement, now is the time to work internally.

“What you have now is actually a moment to take a step back and build a stronger foundation for later. Your focus right now probably should not be getting as much content in front of the public as you can, because there's already plenty of it out there,” Smith said.

When closings first started, the internet suddenly was flooded with virtual collections and digital lesson plans from huge museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty and the Smithsonian Institution. The public has a lot of content to sift through already.

Smith encouraged institutions to take a step back and look internally to figure out what they’re capable of. If a museum’s website has been overlooked in the past and is difficult to maneuver, now is the time to work on it. If alt text descriptions are lacking for visually impaired visitors, now is the time to improve those.

Smith said slowing down and catching up on these basics creates a stronger institution that will be in a better, more stable position once it reopens.

Let the staff’s capabilities guide the content.
Look at the staff to find their most useful skills, suggests Susan Edwards, associate director of digital content at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. If a museum doesn’t have a digital staff, don’t try to program complex digital content. If it does have talented writers, have them write blog and social media posts instead. She said to let employees’ skills guide what kinds of content the museum produces.

Museum consultant Andrea Jones urges museums to also think about who on their staff has the bandwidth to work.

Many people are struggling with the day-to-day effects of COVID-19 outside of work. Representatives for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., said this has been the biggest challenge for their staff. They said museum employees are adjusting to working from home, supervising kids no longer in school and sharing workspaces with significant others. Jones said it is important for institutions to keep this in mind.

Look at yesterday’s content through today’s lens.
Edwards encourages museums to audit their previous content and find things that could resonate with today’s audiences more than they have ever before.

Old content may also inspire new ideas, Edwards said.

Previous interviews with artists may inspire a gallery to reinterview them over Zoom on the same topics from the perspective of what is going on today. Webinars and livestreams are great ways to do this. Websites like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook already integrate this user-friendly technology into their platforms.

“Think about what you're doing and don't try to put something out that doesn't take into account what we're going through,” Jones said. “You can't just go on with business as usual. … It's through new eyes, that you have to look at everything that you're doing.”

Jones said audiences’ needs have changed, and museums should be paying attention to that. She suggests some museums hold listening sessions to hear what their audiences are experiencing and what they need from these cultural centers. The Hammer and Albright-Knox each said they have been reaching out to their communities and asking how they can support them during this time.

Jones said this is a time for art and cultural centers to show empathy toward their audience and find “ways to be of service to the community in ways that you can. I'm not talking about just servicing the actual epidemic, but also servicing people's emotional needs during this.” Institutions should find small ways to do this while also achieving their mission, she said.

The museums producing the best content are those staying true to their mission and continuing to do what they do best, Edwards said.

Grace McCormick is a student journalist from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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