A survey of museums in the time of Coronavirus, run by Museums Aotearoa using the same set of questions as a survey run by the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO).
Note: throughout this report, 'museum' is used to include public museums, art galleries, heritage sites and cultural centres. The survey ran in Aotearoa New Zealand from 15 to 27 April 2020 and collected 107 responses from a range of museums throughout the country.
This was during the COVID-19 Alert Level 4 period which ran 25 March to 28 April, when all non-essential services were closed. Of 107 respondents, 76 (71%) had paid staff and 31 (29%) were volunteer-run. The responses have been analysed separately for paid staff and volunteer-run museums/galleries. The respondent museum demographic is broadly representative of the shape of the sector in Aotearoa New Zealand.
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
Museums reported that their first priority when the pandemic was declared was their staff and volunteers. Of the museums with paid staff, many respondents had accessed the government employee wage support package which provides up to $585.50 a week per employee through to mid-June. Most (83%) had all staff working from home and 89% were changing staff tasks to accommodate current needs. Many museums had put staff who were not able to work from home, e.g. visitor hosts and technicians, on paid leave, but were concerned that they would have to review this if the wage subsidy is not extended. Of those which had casual/free-lance workers, 43% had stood them down, 45% had not, and 12% were unsure.
For the volunteer-run museums, only a few had been able to continue any museum tasks at home.
Loss of income
Unsurprisingly, financial impact was a major concern. Public museums and galleries in Aotearoa New Zealand operate on a range of mixed funding models. Those which are Council or Government funded also generate income from a range of other sources, some up to 60% of their operating budget. Councils are already asking their funded museums to cut costs – after many years of sinking lids. While most museums do not charge general admission, for some it is the primary source of income.
Other revenue sources from visitors include retail, venue hire (conferences and private/corporate events), café/restaurant, value-added programmes (special exhibitions, guided tours, experiences). For many there is a strong reliance on the increase in tourism over summer, especially international visitors, who tend to spend more on value-added activities and retail than locals.
Survey respondents are concerned about the effect of the pandemic on grant funding. It is widely expected that philanthropic funds will reduce due to lower investment returns, and that grantmakers and funders will refocus away from cultural causes, onto health and social services. Many report the cancellation of annual or special fundraising events, and the likelihood that membership subscriptions will decline due to general economic recession.
There is also concern about how long it will take for functions and venue hire to resume. If it is more than a few months that part of the museum's staff capacity will be cut.
Programming and future plans
The domino effect on programming is only just being considered. This will apply particularly to touring exhibitions, but also to other kinds of museum activities.
Some respondents were undertaking capital projects, including earthquake strengthening. There is widespread fear that there will be no funding available to continue these.
Of museums with paid staff, 60% have or are considering increasing their online learning programmes, and 54% have or are considering increasing online exhibitions. But over 30% of museums report a lack of digital and online capacity, both skills and equipment. Some are not able to proceed with much-needed digital projects.
On a more positive note, many museums are increasing collaboration and boosting online engagement. There is a strong belief in the value and impact of museums and galleries. They are working to maintain their engagement in innovative ways and continue to enhance the lives of local communities especially.
While many museums expect to be closed for some months, and a few may go into hibernation for a while, our people are expecting to stay the distance and continue to be here for future generations. In the words of one respondent, "The cultural heritage we care for is important to our identity as New Zealanders. It helps us unpick who we are and cements us in this place. Urban or rural our museums tell our stories, stories that challenge us to do better and stories that we can take pride in. They are also vehicles to show the world who we are. The importance of each and every museum's place in this narrative should not be overlooked because it is not in a main centre, or not funded by a national or local government. These are extraordinary times that require brave and creative thinking, by MA and Government, to support our sector."