Patron holding The O mobile guide at the Museum of Old and New Art in 2012

As the effects of COVID-19 were felt across the cultural community, museums everywhere were forced to confront serious challenges to the audience engagement they had grown comfortable with, and quickly and boldly explore new opportunities for connecting with their visitors. 

In collaboration with the Mid Atlantic Association of Museums, Art Processors Director of Business Development, Suzanne Aiello co-hosted an insightful webinar “Has this been sanitized?” that explored the challenges and silver linings of reaching museum audiences in a post-quarantine world.

The webinar brought together the perspectives of a diverse set of museums, including the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Franklin Institute, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. 

The webinar delved into their personal experiences of overcoming pandemic-related challenges and adapting to remote audience engagement, all the while planning for future programs when they reached their ‘new normal’. 

MAAM Webinar "Has this been sanitized?" panelists

An overall theme was “resiliency” with most institutions relying on and repurposing existing content, platforms and programming to engage audiences in new ways. 

In the case of the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), it only took four days for the Director of Learning and Interpretation to reflect on resources they already had and execute a plan to engage audiences via Facebook Connect. A CAM employee who is a certified yoga instructor created content for CAM Breathe while a member of the culinary staff contributed to CAM Eats, sharing Chef’s secret recipes. The result? CAM is now reaching more online audiences than ever with no plans to slow down. In fact, many employees will have their titles changed to incorporate a digital component since audiences will continue to be served with a digital first mindset. 

For others, the challenge was focused around when the doors would open again and how they could make their visitors feel safe. 

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate (EMKI) put a significant amount of planning into designing a new experience for their visitors when they reopened on October 3rd. They had to make several changes to their offerings, given that the Institute typically features a full-scale replica of the United States Senate Chamber including hands on, interactive exhibits and tablets which don't comply with COVID restrictions. They decided to transpose their content to a mobile application that can be used on personal devices, providing a safer, more hygienic way to engage visitors. They are also opening up tours of the facility where they can control the number of tour participants at any given time, something they have not tried before. 

MAAM Webinar, Edward M Kennedy Institute

The Franklin Institute typically welcomes more than one million visitors each year and also offers a very hands-on interactive experience, but the pandemic gave them an opportunity to think more strategically about the future. They turned to creating all kinds of new content for digital learning through what they refer to as, Franklin @ Home—a collection of different topically relevant content including “That’s Bad Science”, “Mission Materials Science” and #Sparkofscience to engage online audiences.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) already had to contend with a unique set of restrictions, being unable to alter anything within the museum, including adding wall labels. To meet the challenge of contactless-experiences, the Museum decided to convert their handheld room guides into content that can be accessed using QR codes (who would have thought QR codes would make a comeback?).

Their goal was to help visitors answer some of the most common questions: “What am I looking at?” and “Why does the museum look this way?” The response was to recycle the content that they already had and make it accessible on their website. Some of the challenges they faced included limited time, testing (there were no visitors to test!) and budget. However, their ability to highlight new objects and spaces in ways they couldn’t previously resulted in very positive results from audiences with one survey respondent stating, “Your museum made me feel human again!”

The unanimous learning is that technology was the catalyst to help fuel the programs these institutions turned to, allowing them to be nimble, progressive and able to continue to engage audiences both onsite and remotely.

MAAM Webinar, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum guide