Museums, Crisis and Covid-19: Vitality and Vulnerabilities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Ulster
Department Name: Faculty of Arts

Abstract

The Covid-19 crisis is having a significant impact on the museum sector, nationally and globally. It is exposing the vulnerability of museums, their staff, projects and collections. Elsewhere, innovative programming is demonstrating the vitality and versatility of an engaged, responsive and participatory museum service, proving that museums are places of relevance even in a crisis.

This research project focuses on how museums can continue to contribute to community resilience and wellbeing in a time of crisis. It addresses sector adaptability as it adjusts audience engagement and collaboration (such as new collecting practices, programming and exhibitions) in response to Covid-19. The differing responses during the Covid-19 crisis - in some museums staff were furloughed yet elsewhere they have been involved in responsive projects - uncovers deeper attitudes to the essential (or otherwise) nature of museum services. Going forward, this project will lead and inform the sector as it adapts to effective community-digital possibilities that still embraces new thinking in participation and engagement. Alongside this, the project evaluates how we adapt our practices to be mindful of audience diversity, digital poverty, and the isolation challenges for vulnerable audiences arising from Covid-19.

Rising to that challenge this project:
1. identifies how museum pedagogy and practices must adapt to new audience needs;
2. explores possibilities for co-produced community-digital innovation; and,
3. investigates the offer museums can make to support community resilience during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

The importance of this project lies in the following areas. Firstly, new knowledge about the understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on the museum sector in NI that will both inform the Department for Communities (DfC) and have national relevance. Secondly, by generating new thinking around the community-digital dynamic and leading innovation as museums adapt. Thirdly, understanding the new needs around community resilience and wellbeing, arising from Covid-19.

The Museums Association's response to the Covid-19 enquiry described museums as vital in supporting communities, promoting community cohesion, enabling wellbeing, and reflection on significant public issues. Many of our museums work with vulnerable groups, who will remain cautious/shielding post lockdown e.g. the Dementia Friendly Programme (NI Museums Council). This project will investigate the impact of putting such programmes on hold, how they can be effectively adapted/reinstated, and make recommendations for immediate application/future planning.
 
Description The Museums, Crisis and Covid19: Vitalities and Vulnerabilities project has generated findings around three thematic areas (1) adaptation of museum pedagogy and practices; (2) possibilities for co-produced community-digital innovation; and (3) investigating the offer museums can make to support community resilience during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. The project website documents outputs and engagement so far (https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19), which includes recordings of presentations, a short film on emerging findings, links to open access publications, blogs, and downloadable project reports.

The research and engagement activity to date has lead to the publication of three work-in-progress briefings, published December-March 2021. These briefings provide a snapshot of findings emerging from data gathering, focus groups, interviews, workshops and other forms of engagement with the sector. The short briefings are a length that is easily digestible by a busy workforce and directly relates to pertinent issues. Production of the briefings, while the project is still in progress, has meant a continuous dialogue between the project and the sector by sharing well-documented research findings. We circulated draft briefings, and hosted workshops based on the matters arising from the briefings, to ensure dialogue and relevance of the findings. Post workshops we published final versions of the briefings on the project website. The briefings are informing work in and planning for the museum sector, both through Project Partners (National Lottery Heritage Fund; NI Museums Council and UK Museums Association) and through engagement with museum and policy colleagues.

PROJECT FINDINGS (summary)

FUNDING THE MUSEUM SECTOR
Emergency funding, including the Furlough scheme, has been described as a lifesaver for the museum sector. Consistent and informed communication between museum management and staff was essential for a good experience of the scheme. Going forward, post-furlough mitigations should be considered such as an expansion of staff training opportunities, supported by funding bodies and organisations. There is a need for more detailed research into the use, distribution, and impact of emergency funding and there is a gap in understanding about the allocation of emergency funding of local authority museums. As museums gradually re-open to pre-Covid-19 levels, we recommend museum management and funding bodies consider job security and opportunities for career progression within future policy and funding opportunities. This should be undertaken to offer support to museum workers as a community as well as responding to increased precarity in the sector. We recommend that funding and support is provided for the 'blended' museum, in the form of digital skills training and investment in necessary staffing to support both in-person and online content.

MUSEUMS AND COMMUNITY WELLBEING
We recommend that the role of museums as formal spaces of wellbeing and social engagement is better recognised as a strategic priority. This aspect of museum work should be embedded within government social policy, aligning to health and social care policy. This should be supported by strong qualitative evidence from research projects such as this. We recommend that museum development and funding agencies support the digital reach of museum programming. They should recognise the significance of new digital communities and encourage greater awareness of consequences of digital dependence and exclusion. We recommend nurturing opportunities for further innovation, including digital skills training and adequate staff levels to meet the added workload associated with the 'blended' provision of in-person and online programming. We recommend that social impact and community engagement should be foregrounded in funding decisions and the assessment of museum performance. Funding should support initiatives developed during Covid-19 that have demonstrated potential for long-term social benefit.

DIGITAL MEDIA
The digital skills development and experience gained during the pandemic has allowed some museums to produce content and reach audiences that would not have been considered previously. We recommend that methods are developed to capture digital audience figures, and those are incorporated into annual reporting and/or made available to NI Museum Council through museum mapping. We recommend that existing staff are provided ongoing training and support in digital skills. Where possible, we recommend further investment in staff and exploration of creative ways of collaborating across the cultural and tourism sectors to support digital in museums. This is the only way in which the benefits of increased digital activity can be maintained without having a serious detrimental impact on the staff and in-person activities of museums. We suggest, through new forms of digital play and engagement, there is opportunity to tap into alternative experiences of presence and emotional responses triggered by museums, collections and their stories. We recommend that the continued development of digital skills within the museum sector gives additional focus to the creation of sensory experiences. We recommend that degree programmes, preparing individuals to work in the museum and heritage sectors, adapt their content and delivery methods in response to the sector's need for new digital knowledge and skills.
Exploitation Route These findings should be used to inform the strategic development of the museum sector in Northern Ireland and the UK. There is a call to revise the Northern Ireland Museum Policy, and we will use the findings from this project to inform policy makers within the Department for Communities, which sponsors the NI Museums Council and National Museums NI. Beyond Northern Ireland, this research project is relevant to the work of the Museums Association, the Arts Council (which run the Museum Accreditation Scheme) and DCMS.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19
 
Description As the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the UK cultural sector became clear, agencies responsible for promoting culture, arts and heritage looked at how they could provide protection and security for the sector. The devolved nature of government in the United Kingdom resulted in a complex web of relief policies and implementation timescales across the four nations. By working with museum colleagues and Project Partners we have provided insights into the financial support packages made available to the museum sector to mitigate against the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis and have documented the speed and agility shown by museums in their responses to lockdowns and the pandemic. We have provided feedback to the sector on what has worked well and the scope there is for new approaches as we emerge from the pandemic. This includes legacy issues, such as addressing the skills gap caused by those who missed out on development opportunities as well as the scope for new training to meet the needs of the post-pandemic museum. The Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown measures utilised by most governments globally has had profound impacts on people, their environment and their ways of life. Museums and heritage sites have the potential to provide important therapeutic spaces for both individuals and communities both during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated impacts of lockdowns, restrictions of movement and personal loss and grief. These impacts have been felt across communities. This project has generated findings around the roles museums might have in bridging these recent challenges to the 'community' and in helping communities consider the impact of Covid-19 and the rebuilding of the future. Here, the museum's role as a space of social renewal and community healing clearly comes into play. Covid-19 has brought the biggest change to working and living practices in our lifetime. Museums and heritage institutions, and people across society, have demonstrated an ability to rapidly adapt to these changes. Although the changes have been dramatic and have come with significant challenges, there are also positive outcomes. Our research has continually engaged with themes of digital practice and communication, with these topics cutting across our work packages. Changing digital practice has impacted on finance/funding and community wellbeing as well as forms of museum communication and interpretation. By drawing on the expertise and experience of the team, our project has investigated new ways digital practice that can be adapted to current and new museum learning and community projects. Working closely with our Project Partners, Northern Ireland Museums Council, the Museums Association, National Lottery Heritage Fund and a curator in Derry City and Strabane Council, has ensured a close connection with museum practitioners and the generation of industry relevant outcomes. Findings were shared at the Heritage Focus Subgroup and informed the thinking of the Culture, Arts and Heritage Taskforce. This was reiterated by the subgroup chair who said, in relation to our research: "This data has proven invaluable and gives a very clear picture as to the challenges that the museums sector currently faces, all of which will ensure that the Taskforce recommendations are soundly based on quality research. This data will be equally useful in informing the development of an overall Culture, Arts and Heritage sector strategy" This research has challenged our own understanding of the museum sector giving us a deeper appreciation of how the pandemic has brought focused attention to the museum and broader issues such as climate change and decolonisation. These outcomes have been shared in academic past events, publications and are informing future outputs.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Education Developments postgraduate students
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Many individuals attracted to Masters courses in museum studies come from undergraduate programmes in art history, archaeology and history; these are arts programmes that rarely include digital training. Although those students may be regular users of smartphones and websites, they consider their digital skills as very low. This initiative is an entirely new collaboration between Interactive Media at Ulster and the Museum Studies programme and it builds awareness amongst the museum studies MA students of the importance of digital for every aspect of museum practice. The first workshop has already removed some of the mystique in producing digital media, which is often a barrier for museum staff in engaging in with digital media. With their knowledge of collection stories, and expertise of Alan Hook (CI), the MA students will co-produce a digital product focusing on collections in the Ulster Museum.
URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/blog
 
Description Heritage Subgroup linked to the Culture, Arts and Heritage Taskforce, Department for Communities
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Museums Association 
Organisation Museums Association
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Our research team is investigating the impact of the pandemic on the purpose and operation of the UK museum sector, with a focus upon Northern Ireland. This is informing Museums Association campaigns around supporting the museum workforce around issues that span the UK, as well as being pertinent to their Northern Ireland members.
Collaborator Contribution The UK Museums Association is a partner on the Museums, Crisis and Covid-19 project. With regular attendance at project meetings, our partner ensures the research direction and outputs are relevant to areas of concern for the sector.
Impact MUSEUMS ASSOCIATION ANNUAL CONFERENCE NOV 22: PI Crooke chaired a panel at the UK Museums Association conference exploring how museums might contribute to good relations and stability in Northern Ireland, as the region navigates the combined matters of Brexit and Covid19. The panel included 3 Local Councillors, all of whom have served on the Board of NI Museums Council. MUSEUMS ASSOCIATION MEMBERS' MEETING MAY 2021: Introduced by PI Crooke, CI Maguire, CI McDermott and CI Hook presented papers at the Museums Association Members meeting 21 May 2021. Recordings of the papers are available on the project website https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19. Title of papers: Dr Tom Maguire, '"Caressez-moi!" touch in the post-COVID museum'; Dr Philip McDermott and Roisin Doherty, 'Museums as places of community healing post-Covid19'; and, Alan Hook, 'Digital storytelling and transmedia approaches to museum interpretation'. MUSEUMS ASSOCIATION NI DATA PROJECT: The Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project has led to further collaboration with the Museums Association. Our research has shown gaps in data for NI museums sector, amongst that is gaps in financial data, but it goes further to include scarcity of data on staffing, collections, and engagement (in-person and online). Crooke (PI) and Farrell-Banks (CI) presented research from the Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project at a roundtable meeting convened by Sharon Heal, Director Museums Association and attended by NI Museums Council, NL Heritage Fund and Head of Museums Branch, Department for Communities. Our presentation brought critical insights to existing data, identified gaps in data, and highlighted the importance of data for museums whilst they address current and potential future crisis. We will continue this collaboration with the Museums Association with the intention to devise a longer term project investigating and plugging urgent gaps in knowledge about the museum sector. This is multidisciplinary research involving museum studies, social sciences and digital humanities.
Start Year 2020
 
Title Interactive Media and Causeway Coast and Glens Museums Services 
Description Helen Jackson (CI) lead a project between Museum Services at Causeway Coast and Glens and Interactive Media students. The project focuses upon museum archives which students are re-purposing into interactive online experiences, with the intention to foster new forms of participation and engagement. The output takes the form of an interactive exhibition hosted on a website. The creative process underpinning the project is described in a blogpost: https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/blog/posts/adapting-museum-content-for-interactive-platforms. The products are hosted on the online museum community archive: https://niarchive.org/projectitems/ni100-ulster-university-interactive-media-students-projects/ 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact This project is a collaboration between the Museums Services at Causeway Coast and Glens, CI Helen Jackson, and Interactive Media students. It has multiple impacts. Firstly, it enables the museum service to work with young people, an under-represented museum audience. It builds awareness amongst this demographic of the rich stories available via the museum and within the local community, which is ideal material for creative projects. Secondly, the museum has tapped into the skills of the Interactive Media students, which fills a gap amongst the museum workforce. Thirdly, the outcome is new digital products co-created with underutilised archives that is freely available on the museum website. 
 
Description Blog, Crooke 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Blog post titled 'A year on from closure, prioritising the multi-platform porous museum' published 30 March 2021. This blog reflects on themes arising from a NI Museums Council Forum co-chaired by Crooke, PI Museums, Crisis and Covid 19.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/blog
 
Description Blog, Hook 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Three blog posts written by Alan Hook, CI Museums, Crisis and Covid19. The theme of the posts is designing in/for/with the museum. The blogs document each stage of producing browser-based museum interpretation panels. Themes include principles for designing immersive experiences for museums and how to acknowledge and respond to bias in design practice. The blogs underpin the content of 6 hours workshop content with postgraduate students in museum studies who reported a change in understanding of the process.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/blog
 
Description Blog, Maguire 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In a blog post titled 'Caressez-moi' Tom Maguire (CI) explored object touch, materiality and digital visitor engagement in the post-Covid museum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/blog
 
Description Blog, McDermott, Friel, Doherty 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A blog post written by Philip McDermott (CI) Breda Friel (CI) and Roisin Doherty (Project Partner) explores how heritage projects and museums can become central places for mark the trauma of Covid19 and bolster community wellbeing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/blog
 
Description Focus Groups 2021 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Throughout this project we have engaged closely with the museum sector, both as part of the data gathering process and to communicate the research. We held two focus groups with individuals who work in and with museums who are change makers in their professional practice. One of the practitioners provided the following feedback, which we have permission to share:

"When Covid-19 caused lockdown and consequently the shut-down of physical museum services, I was acting Museum Services Manager. I felt privileged to be invited to participate in the Ulster University's Museums, Crisis and Covid-19 focus groups. The process was an opportunity to share experiences and discuss common issues for museums, highlighted by the pandemic. The focus group sessions underlined that the social role of museums was, for the moment, being given a wider recognition. The process validated our aim as a service to continue to work towards a means for better illustrating the relevance and value of museum services to society - not just in a pandemic".

The findings from the focus group meetings informed the next stages of the research and other outputs documented in ResearchFish.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description IMA/NIMC Education and Outreach Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Elizabeth Crooke (PI) gave a presentation to the Irish Museums Association and NI Museums Council Education and Outreach Forum (21 May 2021). The presentation both captured innovation in the museum sector during the pandemic and considered the way forward for the blended museum, which does more to combine both digital and in person/onsite museum services. The discussion that followed gave insights into what form of museum service and public engagement is important to retain and the appetite for further innovation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Interview for Irish Times 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Irish Times published 'Museums project looks at potential changed role in post-pandemic world' (1st April 2021, sponsored). The article documented the purpose of the project, funding source, and collaboration. The article increased the profile of the project amongst the museum sector in Ireland.

https://www.irishtimes.com/sponsored/museums-project-looks-at-potential-changed-role-in-post-pandemic-world-1.4523068
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Interview for Museums Journal 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact January 2022 the Museums Journal published an article titled 'Positive Thinking' with the tag line 'Despite a difficult period for culture, ambitious initiatives are fueling hopes of recovery'. A substantial part of this article cited an interview between Crooke (PI) and the author. In the article Crooke commented on the impact of emergency funding and the furlough scheme; museums staying relevant for their audiences; and ambitions amidst economic and environmental challenges.

https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/analysis/2022/01/positive-thinking/
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.museumsassociation.org
 
Description Museums Association Annual Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Elizabeth Crooke (PI) convened a panel at the Museums Association Annual Conference, 2021. Drawing on the conference theme Brave New World, the panel asked the question 'when cars are burning on your street, what use of museums'. It's starting point was the rioting in Northern Ireland Spring 2021, which was blamed on the "perfect storm" of Brexit, Covid19 and boredom. The question was explored by three Local Authority Councillors, each from different political parties in the region, with clear perspectives on museum purpose. Rather than presentations from each Councillor, Crooke posed questions and the panel took the form of a discussion. Museums were explored as places with both a responsibility and duty to tackle the ongoing challenges of our histories. The debate that followed allowed us to consider different perspectives on difficult histories in museum spaces and museum purposes at times of challenge and crisis. Questions from the audiences showed an interest into getting a better insight into the Northern Ireland context, and the combined concerns of Troubles legacy, Brexit and the impact of the pandemic.

https://www.museumsassociation.org/conference-2021-content/
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.museumsassociation.org
 
Description Museums Association NI Members Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The UK-wide Museums Association holds annual members meetings attended by members from that that region as well as Board members, who can be based anywhere i the UK, all of whom are museum practitioners. Three presentations were given by CIs of the Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project, who were introduced by the PI. Dr Tom Maguire spoke on on audience experiences in museums; Alan Hook on sharing new digital interventions with museums and Dr Philip McDermott and Roisin Doherty exploring the idea of the healing museum. The presentations were recorded and are available on the Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project website https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/outputs. The intended purpose was to disseminate research findings from the project, stimulate debate, and build networks. Feedback from attendees informed the direction of the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/outputs
 
Description NHS Voices of Covid19 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This panel discussion brought together researchers from a number of projects to explore how the pandemic is being collected by museums and archives. It was devised and hosted by NHS at 70: Voices of Covid19. The recording the session is hosted on https://vimeo.com/639108352
Listed here https://www.ulster.ac.uk/museumscovid19/outputs
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.nhs70.org.uk/story/nhs-voices-covid-19