The Museum of the Home in East London viewed through its closed gates. A red and white sign fixed to the gates says 'Reopening early 2021'. The gates are closed with a heavy chain.

Museums in the Pandemic: Risk, closure, and resilience

The Mapping Museums research team has been awarded £190,000 to investigate and analyse risk, closure, and resilience in the UK museum sector during the pandemic.

Our regular readers will know that we launched the Mapping Museums website and database on 17th March 2020, the first day that museums closed in the UK. We had inadvertently produced a database and a report that could easily have been titled ‘Museums Before the Pandemic’. This new project can be thought of as ‘UK Museums During the Pandemic’ and, we hope, ‘After the Pandemic’. 

Over the next eighteen months we will be keeping track of museum closures and entering that information into the database so that we can see how the shape of the sector changes. Documenting closure can present a challenge. None of the organisations with responsibility for museums have kept records of closure and museums often fade away without fanfare. This means that identifying closure can be slow, partial, and reliant on local knowledge. Likewise, it can be hard to establish which museums may be at risk during the pandemic since that relies on museums reporting on their situation to Arts Council England or the Association of Independent Museums, or other bodies.

In this project we will try to digitally capture change within the sector. Political and market research regularly uses software that scrapes and analyses large swaths of information from websites and social media, and we are adopting this approach to studying the museum sector, developing new text analytics and web mining capabilities. This will enable us to see if museums have recently updated or changed their websites and Facebook pages or if they remain in hibernation. We will also analyse the content of that material – whether they are organising outdoor events, digital exhibitions, or planning for re-opening – and we will be able to slice and analyse digital traffic according to the information on governance, size, subject matter and location that we gathered in the Mapping Museums database. For example, we will be able to assess patterns of response in university museums versus those among independent museums, or analyse how medium-sized local authority museums in Scotland differ from those in the South East.

Data always requires interpretation, and the significance of a response or lack of response may vary depending on the type of museum in question. Thus, we need to understand how museums are behaving and what constitutes risk or resilience across the sector. Are risks of closure different depending on the museums’ location, governance, size or subject matter?  Are risk and resilience always dictated by financial circumstances or do other factors come into play, and if so what? Can we identify museums that are resilient to the pandemic and learn from them?  We will attempt to answer these questions through interview-based research with museum staff, and other museum professionals, and read the data accordingly.

We will be posting monthly updates on research and findings on our blog. Please subscribe if you would like to have those reports delivered automatically by email.  The research is funded by the UKRI AHRC rapid response scheme: Grant Ref: AH/V015028/1.

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