I’ve now traveled from Maryland to California and noticing patterns in the ways that museums, historic sites, hotels, and restaurants are reopening after the quarantine. It’s a mixed assortment of responses, mostly because the guidelines and regulations vary from state to state and from museum to restaurant, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. But there are a few trends that reveal how museums and historic sites can create better visitor experiences.
Spreading infection through touch seems to be the most inconsistently addressed issue. When the country first shut down in spring 2019, there were concerns that the virus could be spread by touching surfaces. Research conducted in the last year, however, shows that risk is very low compared to holding a conversation with someone nearby without using masks. Yet most museums continue to have sanitary lotion stands, are covering elevator buttons in plastic, shutting down interactives, disinfecting counters, or warning you about “high touch” areas. Yet there are never any warnings about door handles or handrails, and I rarely find these precautions at restaurants or hotels. Are museums receiving guidance from different authorities, are they particularly risk averse, or do they have visitors that are especially risk averse compared to other similar tourist destinations?
Visitation at history organizations was flat from 2018 to 2019, according to AASLH’s 2020 National Visitation Report. More than 1,100 institutions across the country found almost no change in visitation from 2018 to 2019. But what will be the impact of COVID-19 on visitation in 2020?
According to AAM and Wilkening Consulting, their “National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums” in October 2020 survey of museums revealed that nearly one-third of executive directors believed there was a “significant risk” (12%) of closing permanently by fall 2021 or they “didn’t know” (17%) if they would survive. Secondly, it showed that “museums are operating at, on average, 35% of their capacity–an attendance reduction that is unsustainable long-term.”
It’s now nearly six months later and time for the field to share our annual metrics to understand what actually happened, not rely on predictions. AASLH is now collecting data for the 2021 National Visitation Survey—it closes on Wednesday, March 31. It takes ten minutes to complete and all survey respondents will receive free, advance access to the results later this year. You will need on-hand your visitation data for 2019 and 2020, and your institution’s budget and staffing for 2020. More details and the survey are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Visitation2021.
In the week since I last reported on the impact of COVID-19 on house museums and historic sites, things have changed significantly. A sampling of websites around the country shows that most have closed through the end of March and many have canceled events through April. Last Friday, the home pages of The Alamo, Minnesota Historical Society, and Colonial Williamsburg made no mention of the virus, but within days they did. CW made a special effort to contact me to clarify that they had posted a message on its website on Tuesday, March 10 that it was “temporarily suspending ‘hands-on’ aspects of Historic Area and Art Museums programming to limit frequent contact with common objects and surfaces by employees, volunteers and guests. Colonial Williamsburg is otherwise observing normal operations and hours”, however, this was not present on its home page, where most visitors first search for information. One of the lessons we’re learning from this situation is how, when, and where we communicate vital information to our visitors and that we may need to update our emergency response procedures. Keep notes for your debriefings later on!
We can also anticipate this will have significant financial consequences, especially for those who rely heavily on tourism or revenue from admissions. At this point, I haven’t heard of any major decisions in response to this particular situation (such as layoffs), but historic sites are long experienced with hurricanes, snowstorms, hot and humid days, tree falls, and road closures that can suddenly cause attendance to plunge or prevent access to the site. We’re a resilient bunch. On the top of our minds is the unanswerable question is how long will the restrictions last? And how long will it take to resume normal operations after restrictions have lifted? Colleen Dilenschneider provides some advice to the latter question in “Why Marketing Matters During COVID-19 Closures.”
But perhaps there’s an even bigger question that we should be considering: how can house museums and historic sites contribute to our communities in this type of situation? Are we helpless or helpful? Are we vital or trivial? Certainly we need to place the health and safety of our staff (both paid and volunteer) and visitors above our buildings and collections, but then what’s next? Now that the initial response to the virus is waning, I’m seeing some movement in this regard: