Patrisse Cullors

Open Letter: Museum Directors and COVID-19

By | COVID-19, Visitor Centered Museum, Visitor Centered Research, Visitor Empathy | No Comments

“The results are in from our study on the impact of COVID-19 on US museums, fielded throughout June, indicating that as many as 12,000 museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry.”

– American Alliance of Museums, July 22, 2020


According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) research between twenty percent and one third of museums may permanently close due to the financial impact of COVID-19.

Most likely you are a director of a small or medium sized local history museum (largest group of museums in the United States) with one or two staff members. Prior to COVID-19 life was difficult, but you kept staff employed, you paid your bills and did the best you could with public programming (exhibits and educational programs).

As many as twelve thousand museum directors are thinking “what do I do ?”. All of the museum directors are facing similar issues:

  • Either the museum is closed and making plans to reopen or the museum has reopened. Best case scenario museums are making fifty percent or less of there earned revenue prior to COVID-19.
  • Museums have either received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding to keep staff in place or have decided to furlough or layoff staff.
  • Board Members (Museum Trustees), Major Donors and Corporate Donors are most likely making fewer donations and lower gift level donations.
  • Additional revenue streams such as retail sales, museum rentals, paid programming have significantly decreased or disappeared.
  • Best case you are facing lower operating costs with lower earned and donated revenue, but operating costs such as utilities, insurance, primary staff salaries have not decreased.

An Opportunity for Museum Directors:

As a museum director you are

  1. Create a schedule of when you will need to start the process of closing the museum, do you have three months, six months, etc. before you would need to have the museum closed and the assets transferred to a new museum ?
  2. Start conversations with potential museums to absorb the assets of the museum

An Experiment:

You are already making plans to reopen the museum, you are already making backup plans to dissolve the museum and have the assets absorbed by a new museum and you have created a schedule of when decisions will need to be made. Maybe now is a time to try an experiment, you have already made contingency plans.

A shift from a collection based museum to one of social activism:

  1. Document the process and share the results for others to learn from the experience.
  2. As Director of the museum, write a personal letter of your thoughts about Black Lives Matter and the future of museums including your thoughts about the value of entry level museum staff. This is a personal letter, not to be shared at this point. (Less than two hours)
  3. Identify the audience that has been the most difficult for your museum to reach, the people that might be “anti your museum”. Whomever these people might be, ask ten different representatives (different ages, races, political views) people anti your museum to a coffee your treat. You are looking for people that might use phrases such as “your museum is boring”, or “your museum is a waste of my time”. (four hours to create list)
  4. Schedule the ten coffee meetings, (four hours)
  5. At each meeting use an Empathy Map to understand how the person anti your museum thinks, feels and acts towards your museum and ask to take the persons photo. Make a concentrated effort to listen and understand the person’s point of view. (Ten Hours)
  6. Along with your staff and Board Members, put the ten Empathy Maps up on a wall and look for similarities and differences between the ten people anti your museum, make sure that the people interviewed are of different ages, races and political opinions.
  7. Select one of the ten as your primary visitor and think of ways to reach this visitor that has never been interested in your museum and might be “anti your museum”.
  8. Rethink how your museum might move towards social activism to attract, collaborate and co creators.
  9. To be clear, you are not changing the mission or values or the museum, you are instead changing the vision of the museum to one of co creation and activism with new audiences.


At worst as a museum director you have met ten new people and you have learned a new way to engage with new audiences. If you decide to stay in the museum field you will have a new portfolio piece to discuss as part of interviews at new museum director positions.

At best you have moved from an object based museum to one of social activism that is emotionally connected to new museum audiences and you may have saved the museum for a new post COVID-19 future.

Subsequent posts will make suggestions to expand on the above process including online programming, fundraising, strategic planning and activism.


  1. American Alliance of Museums, United States May Lose One-third of All Museums, New AAM Survey Shows
  2. Center for the Future of Museums, Three Scenarios for Museum Financial Survival in 2020
  3. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S. as of May 19, 2014
  4. New York Times, By Nina Siegal April 29, 2020, Many Museums Won’t Survive the Virus. How Do You Close One Down?
  5. Historical Societies, Historic Preservation, & Historic Houses and Sites 48%, Museums USA, IMLS 2014 Report
  6. Maximum capacity for reopened museums is different state to state, 50% is the highest currently suggested maximum capacity
  7. AAM Reopening Museums
  8. The Hatch Act of 1939