What We Lose When We Lose Museums

By the time the pandemic ends, roughly one-third of U.S. museums may be gone. That would be a very bad thing.

4 min read

Photograph of visitors to the Computer History Museum
Photo: Dizon Studio Photography/Computer History Museum

It’s hard to overestimate the dire impact the pandemic is having on education. As clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks continue to pop up, kindergartens to graduate schools oscillate precariously between online, face to face, and hybrid instruction; administrators, educators, parents, and students struggle to plan and react.

But one important part of the education sector that hasn’t been getting much attention is the informal education that occurs outside the classroom, in museums, science and technology centers, and historic sites. These essential cultural institutions are in peril.

Consider the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, Calif. Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was admirably early in facing the pandemic, issuing its first shelter-in-place order on 16 March. With that, CHM’s doors shut to the public, and they remain so nearly eight months later. In this time, the museum has pivoted to digital and virtual offerings: online events, interpretive videos, virtual educational experiences, essays, and blogs.

The museum is fortunate in that it has a robust endowment and generous individual donors, but the fact remains that it has lost one-third of its revenue due to being physically closed. A combination of pay cuts, the Paycheck Protection Program, and fundraising appeals have helped offset the losses so far. But curators still have extremely limited access to the museum facilities, so carrying out activities intended to build the collections and make them accessible remains a real challenge.

Things are far more dire at thousands of other museums. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the major professional association for museum staff and volunteers in the United States, released a report in June that found one-third of U.S. museums to be at significant risk of permanent closure in the next year and a half. Let that sink in for a minute. There are 33,000 museums in the United States. The people in the best position to know think that 11,000 of them could be gone by the end of 2021.

In a statement that resonated strongly with the AAM’s findings, John Dichtl, CEO of the American Association of State and Local History, issued this eloquent statement: “Without substantial assistance, many museums, historical societies, preservation organizations, and other institutions will likely close forever. Communities across the country will be left without anchor institutions that provide context for contemporary challenges.”

Why does that matter and why should you care?

Museums are cultural institutions entangled in the lives of towns and cities. Museums have the power to transport visitors beyond their day-to-day experience. They can push you out of your bubble and into a whole new world.

For adults, they provide important opportunities for lifelong learning. Years or decades after someone has finished their formal schooling, museums are the one consistent outlet where they can find well-researched exhibits and engaging public programs.

For children, museums offer a lively learning environment outside the classroom, one that can be fully immersive and experiential. “I have always loved science museums in particular—the interactive hands-on museums.… They just exude creativity,” Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut and the first U.S. woman to walk in space, said in a recent interview with the Computer History Museum.

Sullivan might be a bit biased. After her NASA career, she served as director of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, and held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Her career trajectory highlights the strong connection between museums and STEM education. Museums serve as powerful access points in our culture, Sullivan says, providing “engagement and understanding of nature or technology, or societal history, or natural history.”

Both of the authors of this post can also draw a line from our early museum visits to our current professions. Marsh began volunteering at the Science Museum of Virginia at the age of 14, and she went on to college internships at the Virginia Aviation Museum and the Franklin Institute.

Brock also shares a love of the Franklin Institute, especially the old mathematics gallery, and he often took his young daughters there, passing on to them a fascination with museums. The Air and Space Museum knocked his socks off when he was a kid, and he went there whenever he had the chance. Brock is now the Director of the Software History Center at the Computer History Museum; Marsh teaches history of technology and museum studies at the University of South Carolina.

Beyond their educational value, museums are also economic engines for their communities. In pre-pandemic days, museum-goers racked up more than 850 million visits to their favorite U.S. sites, which easily eclipsed the 483 million visits to all major league sporting events and amusement parks. Across the United States, museums employ more than 372,000 people directly and support an additional 325,000 jobs in the community, for roles such as exhibit design and fabrication, scriptwriting, and catering.

And yet, unlike other sectors of the economy, museums have been largely left to contend with the ongoing crisis on their own. Museums have had to share a tiny slice of the $2 trillion CARES Act funding—$200 million, or one ten-thousandth of the total—with other similarly shuttered performing arts institutions and libraries.

Do we as a society really value these vital cultural institutions, and the people who animate them, so little? How we choose to answer that question in the coming months, as the pandemic grinds on, may well determine the fate of thousands of museums across the United States.

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