Museums Serving Communities: Pandemic Edition

October 28, 2020 Thoughts

The global pandemic has not been kind to museums. By now you’ve probably heard of the mass layoffs of museum professionals and the possibility of approximately 1/3 of museums closing due to the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic. For some, a combination of emergency grants and the Paycheck Protection Program served as a vital lifeline. However, many of those resources have now been depleted and, as the American Alliance of Museums points out, things will become more dire without additional federal relief.

Despite these challenges, museums continue to serve their communities in important ways. Many museums have created virtual programs to keep audiences engaged, informed, and entertained; provided lesson plans and other educational content to teachers and parents; and some are already collecting pandemic-related stories and ephemera to document this historic moment in time. Further, in many places across the nation and around the world, museums have begun to reopen under strict guidelines and safety measures (albeit, with limited success).

However, what often goes less noticed is the critical ways in which museums leverage their assets, such as buildings and other infrastructure, to serve local communities. Often times, this work stretches an organization’s mission to provide vital, value-added services in urgent times. Not only is this work inspiring, but it helps strengthen a museum’s roots within the communities it serves. The following few examples illustrate how this work is transpiring at museums across the United States.

A Museum as Testing Site for COVID-19

Some museums are partnering with local health authorities and other nonprofits to utilize their spaces as testing sites for COVID-19. In Chicago, the National Museum of Mexican Fine Art partnered with an area nonprofit to provide a pop-up testing facility at the museum. Given the museum’s location with Pilsen, a heavily populate Latinx community in Chicago’s lower west side, it served as an accessible testing location for many within the community.

Similar efforts took place from coast to coast. In Maryland, the Baltimore Museum of Industry partnered with MedStar Health and made its parking lot a coronavirus testing site. And, in California, the Children’s Museum of San Jose worked in conjunction with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department to serve as a pop-up testing site for the coronavirus.

A Museum as a Place for Voter Engagement

For the past several years, the team at the University of Michigan Museum of Art has made great strides at repositioning the institution as a more integrated and relevant asset within both the university and local residential communities. For example, at the end of the Fall 2019 semester, the staff offered tables and couches throughout the museum for students to study for final exams. Moreover, as part of Study Days, they designed self-care and stress-relieving activities around the museum. This was a brilliant approach to leveraging the institution’s assets to serve one of its primary audiences: students.

More recently, during the pandemic, UMMA partnered with the Ann Arbor City Clerk to open a satellite office to engage students on voting efforts. Opened on National Voting Registration Day with the Secretary of State in attendance, the satellite office in both a place to register new voters and collect absentee ballots. According to a recent news article, “more than 2,600 students have registered and more than 2,900 have voted either in person at UMMA or by returning their ballot to the museum’s drop box.” Given all of the challenges to voting in a pandemic, this resource is immensely value to the campus and local communities. It’s yet another brilliant way in which museums can leverage their assets to provide essential services to the communities they serve.

A Museum as a Classroom

I had the pleasure of serving as an advisor to the Louisiana Children’s Museum for two years while its staff participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts Innovation & Management Program. I was most impressed with the museum’s leadership team. Together, they opened a new, 56,000 square foot, LEED-certified building on an 8.5 acre plot of land in New Orleans City Park. This new museum, along with its exhibitions and programs, were thoughtfully conceived in a manner to best serve children and families in New Orleans and beyond. Opened to great fanfare in August 2019, it was celebrated as a “Top 10 Best New Museum” by USA Today. However, just six short months after opening, the coronavirus turned NOLA into a hot spot, and the museum temporarily shut down.

The team at the Louisiana Children’s Museum were no strangers to adversity. They had experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then the Great Recession just a few years later. The team’s resiliency, optimistic outlook, and bold vision demonstrate have enabled the institution to thrive. However, in the midst of the global pandemic, the new museum was now operating with a larger staff and greater expenses, and by August 2020, it became apparent that an attempt at business as usual with the limited attendance numbers was not going to work. Ultimately, the museum shuttered its doors. However, despite now being closed to the public, the museum has found a new way to serve its community.

Beginning in September 2020, and with support from a local foundation, LCM now serves as a place of learning for approximately 60 PreK and kindergarten students from a local school. Many of these children come from disadvantaged homes and have previously never set foot in the museum. Thus, the museum now serves as a place of both formal and informal learning at a time when schools and parents are looking for safe ways to conduct learning. In this regard, the museum continues to serve its mission in new ways while proving to be a vital resource for its community.

A Museum as a Food Pantry

In June 2020, the Queens Museums began working in partnership with La Jornada and Together We Can Community Resource Center Inc. to serve as a food pantry for the communities in Corona, Queens. The neighborhood ranked among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in New York. The food pantry was established to serve a vital need in the community. Many residents had lost jobs and faced heightened food insecurity due to the pandemic. As part of this joint effort, the museum hopes to serve 1,000 families weekly “distributing a week’s worth of fresh and nonperishable food items.”

The Queens Museum was not the only NYC museum working to distribute food. Across the city, the Brooklyn Museum partnered with The Campaign Against Hunger to serve as a food distribution center earlier this summer.

Museums As Essential Community Anchors

For years, museums have been pivoting to become more democratic and community-centered institutions. This means rethinking how museums play a larger role in serving as responsive anchor organizations within their home locations. The important work above demonstrates the ways that museums go above and beyond serving as places of informal learning. These value-added services keep museums top-of-mind and woven into the fabric of their communities. As critical community anchors, museum are more than just places of inspiration and discovery; they are integral components of social infrastructure that serve communities in myriad ways.