How has the museum sector changed? Insights from Museum Strategy Consultancy

Credit: Zalfa Imani

In July 2021, the third ICOM – International Council of Museums – survey on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the museum sector was published, in which some 840 responses from museums on all continents and of various sizes were analysed.

One year on from the first survey, it emerged that there is still a climate of great uncertainty for the future, mainly linked to a general decline in participation and the increasing need for government support.

Takeaway Points

1. Museums have expanded and reprogrammed their digital offerings, improving them, but have not invested new resources to support these efforts:

  • at budget level
  • for staff training
  • for the expansion of human capital

2. There has not yet been a substantial strategic shift towards diversification of revenue sources by museums:

  • have not increased or diversified services and products by intercepting the new potential of users
  • have difficulty in developing a change strategy that transforms the consequences of the crisis in a proactive manner.

3. At the financial level, it emerged that:

  • The museums were supported by resources from refreshments and a slight increase in fundraising activities.
  • Most museums, primarily small ones, have not experimented with new ways to generate income.
  • There is a lack of perception that competition for access to public and private funds will increase in the long run, because access requirements will be more and more specific and punctual.

4. Museums perceive a high risk of failing to attract and bring visitors back to the museum and of losing contact with their local community. However, the strategies implemented do not aim at solving these problems, but favour research operations on collections. This shows a mismatch between strategies and objectives.

Economic Impact

The collapse in visitation. 69.5% of the museums responding to the ICOM Survey in 2020 saw a drop in visitors of more than 50% with peaks of more than 75% and 90% of attendance losses.

Access to financial support. Among cultural institutions there is an increasing use of fundraising campaigns and access to emergency funds to cope with the economic difficulties caused by the crisis. This explains the decrease in the percentage of institutions that did not have access to any kind of subsidy.

Long-term impact of the pandemic crisis. Cultural institutions are still very concerned about the long-term reduction of exhibitions and public initiatives. There is partial concern about the reduction of opening hours, while the fear of prolonged and/or permanent closure of museums has vanished.

Sources of income. There is little commitment of cultural institutions to find new sources of income to cope. The most significant figure shows that only 14.1% diversified by opening an online shop.

The majority of institutions that have not sought new sources of income have not done so because being small or medium-sized they do not have the resources to invest in new activities.

Communication and digital activities

Hired staff dedicated to digital activities. The overall percentage of cultural heritage institutions that have staff dedicated exclusively to managing digital activities has increased.

The increase, however, saw a decrease in the percentage of institutions using staff employed full time at their organisation and a percentage increase in the use of staff who are also employed elsewhere.

Total budget dedicated to communication and digital Between the first and second survey, the percentage of institutions dedicating a considerable part of their budget to communication and digital activities increased. Thirty per cent of institutions devote 1-5% of their budgets to them. With the third survey, the number of institutions dedicating a considerable part of the budget to communication and digital activities dropped to 49.8% from the previous 56.3%. In spite of this overall decrease, there is a slight increase in the percentage of institutions dedicating between 6-10% or more than 10% of their budgets to communication and digital.

Planned changes in digital strategy post pandemic. During the crisis period, cultural heritage institutions identified the increase of digital activity offerings and the rethinking of digital strategy as key strategic actions. However, these strategic actions are not supported by increased staff and budgets or investments in training. The third survey confirms this trend: institutions have focused, and will continue to focus, on rethinking and expanding their digital offerings and have left the allocation of resources to support these actions in the background.

Re-opening and preparing for the future

Risks. The third survey shows that institutions perceive the risk of no longer being able to reopen their spaces to the public as less strong. The aspects that still worry museums are:

  • the inability to attract visitors again.
  • the loss of contact with the local community of reference.

Strategies. The areas of action in which strategic change efforts were concentrated are:

  • collection research
  • a growing focus on sustainability and the local community.

The strategic shift in these areas for many was already underway before the pandemic crisis. There remains little focus on key strategic aspects such as

  • changing partnership strategies
  • find new ways to generate economic revenue by exploiting online.

Competencies. For museums, the crucial skills to cope with the pandemic crisis are related to the development of digital offerings. Developing digital or hybrid events, building a digital strategy and investing in digital content creation are considered essential skills. One of the greatest risks for the future is the fear of losing contact with local communities, but the ability to do community outreach is perceived as an unimportant skill.

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