The future of museums amid unsettling times

Museum Heads AustriaMuseum Heads Austria
Laura Brown

Global lockdowns imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic severely diminished the tourism sector. The arts and culture industry, a cornerstone for tourism, and well-rounded communities now face an existential crisis. Museums make up a 13 billion dollar industry in the US alone, where 14 million Americans attend each year. The risk of losing museums will affect the intricate system of artists, tourists, residents, and families. Today, museums across the board struggle in the background. One-third might not make it through the pandemic; the rest may need to reinvent their business models to survive.

Museums, at their core, are keepers of authentic heritage, culture, and history. Across the globe, museums showcase over 1 billion objects and artifacts for essential public views. Over the last decade, the industry evolved from scholars and academia to bring in wider audiences through engagement and entertainment. Respectively, their financial model reflected the more hands-on experience brought on by foot traffic and memberships. The Smith Group, based on architectural design in the art space, points out the need for structural changes to stay relevant post-pandemic and among the newer generations.

This short term financial and cultural crisis expedited the threat of how museums will keep up in the digital age. Traditional and dated forms of engagement used by many museum websites do not effectively harness the internet. If museums move beyond brick and mortar establishments, they will need to implement more forward-thinking ideas. Museums already use social influencers like celebrities or political figures to market and attract visitors. Still, a new form of marketing, known as niche marketing, can potentially lead museums to use pop culture to interact with the digital world. One example from a recent phenomenon is Animal Crossing, the record-breaking video game from Nintendo Switch. The social simulation game sold over 13 million copies since its release and created a revolutionary community to build an attractive island and visit other users online.

The fandom attracts many public figures to its doors, even inspiring New York congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to reach out to her following within the video game. In a comment made to the Wall Street Journal, David Newbury, an enterprise software architect at the J. Paul Getty Trust, said, “We need to get our art to where people actually are, and they’re in this game.” The Getty Museum recently created a Vincent Van Gogh Exhibition in the game to engage visitors over quarantine. New York-based artist Nicole Shinn launched her art gallery housed within Animal Crossing and featured over 20 contributing artists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made its entire collection of more than 406,000 Open Access images available to visit or hang in your island home.

These public engagements show promising ideas for museums to interact successfully in the digital world, but still aren’t translating into their current financial model. As museums struggle to stay afloat, these efforts must be two-fold: how will they use the digital space to bring in much-needed funding and how will they use the digital world to funnel traffic back into their establishments. Beyond the museum industry, the ladder might be more critical to the travel sector. If museums engage more online, how will this affect the cultural development and attraction of cities to tourists worldwide?


By Kylie Ruffino, a copywriter and designer graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her focus is exploring the intersection of design and language to realize solutions of forward thinking ideas.

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