The current worldwide health crisis forces the university museum to make some choices about the future. What kind of future will these museums have?
They could opt to fold. Universities themselves are under financial pressure and are struggling. Why continue to operate and support museums? They could opt to try to slash costs and try to wait it out. Is a holding pattern the way to go? They could try to reinvent themselves to deal with the new reality, with the caveat that nobody knows how the current situation will play out.
In my view, every effort should be made to save the university museum. Education is a fundamental purpose of both universities and museums, and abandoning these museums would be a violation of the very identity of the university. A holding pattern is viable, but not the best option. The best option is to act quickly to deal with the situation, including the unknowns.
Art and artifacts must be protected and preserved. But other expenses associated with the operations of the museum building itself could be minimized. The museum building is, after all, currently closed.
I understand the temptation to slash payroll—people who deal directly with museum patrons have no work to do. But if the museum is to continue in some form, what IS being done needs to be decided along with who will be doing it. In my view, what needs to be done is to expand the online capabilities of the museum to serve its functions as well as possible in that medium, and to figure out how to fund these activities.
People are feeling isolated in their homes and are looking for stimulation and interaction and experiences. University museums online can offer exactly that—something better and more enriching that binge-watching Netflix. But it must be something much better than what they are offering online right now.
Possibilities include online courses, livestreamed and recorded events, digital versions of exhibits rich with storytelling and interactivity, and video connections with experts—something like book groups but about subjects related to the museum collection perhaps. What should be done for each individual museum will be different, but all will involve two things: engaging educational experiences and fundraising.
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