TrendsWatch 2021: Who Gets Left Behind?

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 16, 2021

Every year the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Center for the Future of Museums releases a TrendsWatch report. For the past two years I’ve written a response piece to each topic tackled within the reports. Continuing that strategy, this post addresses AAM’s third topic for 2021.

For an introduction to the TrendsWatch reports and the following miniseries, please see: TrendsWatch 2021: Navigating a Disrupted Future, and TrendsWatch 2021: Closing the Gap. The previous post in this series is TrendsWatch 2021: Digital Awakening

The TrendsWatch 2021 report continues with the third of five topics: Who Gets Left Behind?: Caring for the vulnerable in a time of crisis. We first spoke about wealth inequality in the previous post: Closing the Gap. This post will focus specifically on how those in our communities—both internal and external to the museum—are being left behind in the fallout to this pandemic and our response to it.

COVID-19 has done much to highlight the flaws in the United States system that allows for the vulnerable people in our communities to be at greater risk during natural and man-made crises. It’s because of this that Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums states: “[I]t’s incumbent on all sectors—government, private, and nonprofit—to create an ad-hoc safety net for people falling through the gaping cracks in our current system of care.” And, it’s important to be aware many museum staff and volunteers belong to high-risk or vulnerable populations.


Many of the core functions of American society (e.g., education, health care, safety services) barely work for marginalized peoples at the best of times. Merritt explains: 

To maximize private profit and minimize government costs, our nation tends to offload the costs of the systems onto vulnerable communities, depending on the nonprofit sector or inadequate public infrastructure to meet essential needs.

The social safety nets that use to be in place are now shutdown or extremely limited in operations due to COVID-19 safety measures. The example cited in TrendsWatch is K-12 schools that also operate as social service providers by delivering food, health, and wellness resources. With schools closed there are no backup or complementary mechanisms in place to help supplement the services provided to school-aged children.

Merritt does bring a drop of optimism to this topic with the following prognostication: 

If there is any upside to the past year, it may be that the pandemic has demonstrated how leaving the most vulnerable of society exposed eventually hurts everyone, even those who are usually buffered from harm. Viruses and financial collapse can’t be redlined, and left unchecked they will eventually undermine the safety and security of all.

Yes, but do *they* know that? As in, is it realistic to think American society gets that? And do we have the knowledge, will, and perseverance to change a very broken system? Time will tell. For now, Merritt suggests we focus (as a society and as museum staff) on two things:

  1. Determining what are the critical, minimum functional requirements for each program and organization.
  2. Make intentional and smart decisions on what programs we can create or expand to ensure no one gets left behind.

Internal Recommendations

  • Check health insurance for wellness plans that can be offered to employees.
  • Offer paid sick leave and emergency family medical leave.
  • Reduce employee stress by being flexible in meeting and supporting their needs.
  • Ask for voluntary or mandatory pay cuts in order to avoid, delay, or minimize furloughs or layoffs. I add that this should be targeted to leadership roles earning over a stipulated amount.
  • Continue to pay workers whose roles center on physical museum operations even when the museum is closed. Even better if you can shift their work to remote projects just like The National World War I Museum and Memorial.
  • Extend access to benefits for those staff who have been furloughed or laid off.
  • Create an emergency relief fund or mutual aid fund to support struggling staff, newly unemployed staff, and volunteers.
  • Provide a packet of resources from the local area to support filing for unemployment, entering into a job search, utilities and rent relief, food pantries, etc.
  • Build a culture of connection to facilitate an informal network of support.

External Recommendations

  • Offer free admission or access to spaces that can provide respite
  • Provide free WiFi hotspots from the museum
  • Supply laptops and portable hotspots to community members to checkout 
  • Donate protective equipment to local area hospitals and medical facilities in need


As with Closing the Gap, it will take time to repair our current system that allows for people to be left behind. I think Merritt understands that and her advice to focus on what’s right in front of us first is a wise one. We can change what’s right in front of us and then gradually grow that sphere of influence—gaining the confidence, skills, and knowledge needed to make effective change.  Stay tuned next week for the next post in our series: TrendsWatch 2021: COVID On Campus.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert, consultant and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, digital museums, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She is a popular presenter and Lucidea Press author. For more on museum success, 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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