COVID-19 and Museums: Collections, Ethics, and Public Messaging for Longevity

May 26, 2020

By Allison Spangler

We are living through an unprecedented historic time in which the fate of museums rests not only on their finances, but on their ability to maintain a presence in our everyday lives. We all know the backstory: on January 20, 2020 the first known case of COVID-19 appeared in the United States, in Washington State. By the end of February, much of Europe was shuttered indoors and the first coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. were reported. By March, the World Health Organization had classified the virus as a pandemic, and in the days following, museums began closing their doors to the public to limit further spread of the disease. March 23 marked a turning point in the crisis, when most states mandated a “stay-at-home” order. This necessary measure is changing the course of leisurely museum-going as we know it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is vastly different from other major threats to museum collections, as detailed in the emergency preparedness section of Museum Registration Methods (a sort of Bible to those who care for museum collections). This manual details immediate risk factors such as fire, water, pests, theft, incorrect temperature, and relative humidity, among others.[1] Some of these issues are aligned with natural disasters, nuclear fallout, and war. Museum collections managers have the challenging job of anticipating a vast range of threats, creating a comprehensive and achievable plan, and effectively communicating it to staff. In contrast with the sudden catastrophes shared above, which pose immediate physical threat to objects, the threats resulting from COVID-19 will exert holistic institutional damage, affecting every level of museum operation. As in many other industries, museum lockdown has meant a dramatic decrease in earned revenue; tickets are not being sold, public programs are stalled, and rentals for private events are canceled.

Today galleries and offices lie quiet, and the future of museums is very much in question. The American Alliance of Museums anticipates that, across the U.S., museums are losing around $33 million per day.[2] The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has been closed since March 12 and will remain so until mid-August at least, with an estimated total loss exceeding $100 million during this period.[3] Spring is a critical time for museums, when many host their yearly fundraising functions. For some institutions, these events produce more than one-third of the year’s budget.[4] The financial devastation of this pandemic means that, upon reopening, arts and cultural institutions will not be able to function fiscally or socially as they once had. Many museums,  such as The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, are looking toward a tiered reopening, in which they will first resume operation of their outdoor gardens while they assess best practices for managing visitors and the financial impact of lost tourism.[5]

Image 1: Instagram users participate in the viral social media campaign #GettyMuseumChallenge where participants recreate artworks by using household objects. @thewelldressedhead recreates Constantin Brâncuși’s Sleeping Muse, 1910 through a skillfully carved avocado.

With future operations currently uncertain, museums are fighting to remain relevant in their patrons’ lives from afar. One result is a huge uptick in digital engagement; if you have shared your email address with a museum at any point, you are most likely being inundated with their messages lately. Mass emails promote digital exhibition walkthroughs (many via Google Arts and Culture) and invite you to explore museum collections online; social media posts are ubiquitous across platforms. Viral hashtags such as #MuseumMomentofZen, #MuseumFromHome and #GettyMuseumChallenge promote permanent collections, the latter two soliciting participants to recreate artworks using only household items. These object-based activities are creative, unique, and kid-appropriate—some are just plain brilliant (Image 1)! My favorite example of fruitful collection engagement came from The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) on April 17. The email newsletter highlighted their staggering collection of eighty-five artworks by Robert Rauschenberg, including links to the online Rauschenberg Research Project, a video interview with the artist, and high-resolution images of these works with the ability to zoom in on details (Image 2). This project is a robust example of thorough museum research that is shared with the public.

Image 2: Image from SFMOMA’s subscriber email blast on April 17, 2020, which features options to explore the museum’s collection through the Rauschenberg Research Project.

Interestingly, museums’ push to expand their public messaging has caused them to actively examine and re-calibrate their institutional values, such as their missions and cultures—which will have long-term impacts on collecting, research, engagement, and learning. For museum professionals, determining how museums should position themselves during this moment is, and should be, a top priority. Organizations such as Creative Time and the Queens Museum have addressed this head-on, calling out how the current state of lockdown will have longterm effects on the arts community and institutional ethics. Is this a precipice moment in which museums will be forced to evaluate who and what communities they cater to, and to actively take steps to engage those that are underrepresented? Could keeping their current audience digitally engaged while roping in new virtual visitors who have never entered (and may never enter) their physical spaces contribute to institutional stability during this precarious time?

As a result of this period of retrospection and financial instability, my prediction—and hope—is that more collection-centered exhibitions and research (versus temporary exhibitions) will be pushed into the mainstream. Museums will no longer be able to support expensive, blockbuster exhibitions consisting of loans from all over the globe. Given the current state of travel and shipping, loan shows may not be possible for the foreseeable future. Instead, museums will look to objects close at hand, drawing on internal and local resources. This is the perfect moment for museums to ramp up in sharing the fascinating, and largely unseen, research that their staff and visiting researchers have been doing all along. While these may seem like hopeful musings for what appears to be a dark road ahead, it is evident that investing in creative and meaningful digital engagement during this challenging time will pay off when museums begin to reopen their doors.


[1] Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore, eds., Museum Registration Methods, 5th ed. (Washington, DC: AAM Press. 2010), Section 6: Risk Management, 352.

[2] Kelly Crow, “As Museums and Galleries Reopen, Visitors Face New Rules,” Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2020.

[3] Robin Pogrebin, “Met Museum Prepares for $100 Million Loss and Closure Till July,” New York Times online, March 18, 2020.

[4] Wallace Ludel, “Institutions stand to lose millions as spring fundraisers are cancelled and postponed,”
Art Newspaper online, March 26, 2020.

[5] Crow, “As Museums and Galleries Reopen.”

Allison Spangler is an MA Candidate in Museum Studies at New York University. Museums where she has worked include the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Dia Beacon.  She plans to graduate in spring 2021 after completing a thesis on museum collections management and the incorporation of the living artist’s voice as an integral component of object stewardship, documentation, and archiving.