Museum Forecast 2021

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

April 21, 2021

2020 was the first year I offered a formal forecasting of where I thought museums were headed. In the post I selected the top three areas within the field that would shift, and outlined how. 

I have to admit, the almost monthly disasters that occurred during 2020 and the continuation of the pandemic into 2021 has me hesitant to offer a museum forecast this year. However, if we wish to continue to move the museum profession forward—come hell or high water (literally?)—then we need to keep our commitment to reflection, critical review, and the setting of new intentions.

With that in mind, let us move forward and think forward to what could await us in 2021. To read a recap of how my forecast held up for 2020, please see this post: A 2020 Recap of Museum Issues.

Museums Will Close 

Small museums and museums that were already financially struggling pre-COVID will close. (As will other humanities-based organizations like liberal arts colleges). This will disproportionately take place in small, rural areas; and for museums who exhibit collections of underrepresented peoples. To be fair, this isn’t an original-to-me forecast though I did speak to the decline in perceived value by society for the work that archivists do and the history they keep in late-2018. COVID-19 has sped up this decline. 

The signs are there, and professional organizations like American Alliance of Museums (AAM) did their best in 2020 to communicate this loudly and repeatedly to our representatives in Congress. In late-March the CARES Act was passed and provided just 4% of what AAM and peer organizations advocated for. Additionally, congress required the relief funds be disbursed by federal granting agencies via their application system. A problematic choice given the inherent inequities in the federal funding application system. Since then (and as of this writing) no additional relief packages specific for museums has been passed.

[M]useums are losing millions while operating on slim reserves, leaving about one-third of all institutions at risk of permanent closure. As we’re witnessing increases in COVID-19 cases across the country and the potential for re-closures looming, museum directors fear that their institutions will not be able to recover from another lockdown as over half have less than six months of financial savings remaining, the new survey finds. –AAM, Museums Losing Millions, Job Losses Mount as Covid-19 Cases Surge

To quantify this, losing a third of museums would mean losing approximately 11,550 museums as there are more than 35,000 museums in the US alone.

These closures are going to take out the small, new, rural, non-white male collecting museums. However, I will note that if the US government can take quick and effective action to help fill the funding gaps of those who need it most, we may be able to slow the slaughter. My forecast is that US museums will receive some more relief, but it will still be painfully slow and inadequate. It’s going to take repeated and forceful advocacy from all of us to make sure the museum field’s needs are met.

Additional reading: United States May Lose One-third of All Museums, New Survey Shows, American Alliance on Museums, published July 22, 2020. Museums Losing Millions, Job Losses Mount as COVID-19 Cases Surge, American Alliance on Museums, November 17, 2020.

Collections Accessioning and Deaccessioning

In order to more adequately represent and serve our communities, we have to drastically augment museum collections and permanently shift the focus of acquisitions from overwhelmingly white cisgender men; to include everyone else. In order to do so, collections will need to be broken in order to be repaired—meaning museums will need to deaccession and sell off portions of their collection in order to both create storage and exhibit space, as well as free up money to finance the acquisition of new items. The selling of collections is historically controversial, but unless money can be found elsewhere this is the only immediately available option. With COVID-19 impacting museum finances, organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums have relaxed their guidelines on the selling of collections and several are taking advantage of this opportunity. My forecast is that many museums will take advantage of this opportunity in order to both shore up their bottom line as well as help rectify their monosyllabic collections.

Additional reading: Museum Art Collections are Very Male and Very White, The Guardian, published May 21, 2019. 

Digital Collections are a Higher Priority

If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s that if your museum doesn’t have collections online then it has virtually no way to serve its audience while it’s closed. If you’re a veteran reader of my posts you’ll have noticed this forecast snuck into my previous post: LAMS are More Alike Than Different: Physical VS Digital Nature of the Work. While we may one day get to whatever our new “normal” looks like, the fact is the way we fund, prioritize, and deliver our digital collections has undergone a monumental change—if only mentally because money issues are a thing (see above). We’ve spent a solid 12 months shifting our work and focus to our digital collections. We’re innovating on how we deliver our collections, leveraging what tech tools we have to the max, and learning that our current Collections Management System (CMS) implementation is lacking. My forecast is that many who work with a sub-par museum collections management system will find it easier to push for an upgrade. More money and attention will be paid to digital collections this year, and it’s on museum professionals to seize this opportunity to make their digital collections better.

Conclusion

While these forecasts are scary as hell, there’s also a tremendous amount of opportunity in them. If we can just financially-survive COVID-19 we can work toward becoming more financially sound, break and rebuild our collections to be truly representative, and get ourselves an incredible digital collection platform of our dreams.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, digital museums, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus Museum CMS for virtual, multimedia presentation of collections, visitor engagement, and museum staff productivity and impact.

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