The challenges and possibilities as museums reopen


Authored by AXA XL

As museums in some countries start to reopen their doors, how will they ensure that staff and visitors are protected? Also, how will museums continue to attract and engage audiences? Jennifer Schipf, AXA XL’s Global Practice Leader for Art, has the details.

Nothing compares to experiencing original art in person.

I remember the first time I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and first saw Raphael’s Bindo Altoviti in person. From college lectures and various art publications, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the artist’s work. On one level, that was true. But the emotional impact of seeing it in person was striking and profound. The images I’d seen of Raphael’s work in the classroom didn’t come close to capturing the staggering impact of an original.

My experience was not unusual; anyone who regularly views art in person, whether at a museum, gallery or fair, could tell a similar story. Unfortunately, our only option for exploring museum collections during the current pandemic has been online. And while many institutions have done a wonderful job creating virtual facsimiles of their collections, seeing them onscreen is nothing like lingering in front of great artworks and absorbing the varied emotions they evoke.

Fraught with difficulties
When public life suddenly ground to a halt with COVID-19, the immediate and pressing issues for museum administrators included ensuring employees’ health and safety; financial and business-continuity issues; and protecting their art and artifacts. (We wrote about this last challenge – Protecting the collection when the museum or gallery is shut down – at the end of April.)

Now, life beyond home is slowly and incrementally coming back, although the timing, pace and parameters vary across and even within different countries. What we’re witnessing from the first countries and cities starting to emerge from lockdown is that shuttering the doors was easier than reopening them. Initial reports suggest that providing a rewarding museum experience while ensuring the safety and security of museum staff and visitors requires more than simply calling employees back to work and opening the doors.

For starters, museums must now thoroughly disinfect their premises before reopening and continue this on a daily basis. However, they will have to use caution as sustained, long-term exposure to commercial disinfectants based on bleaching or oxidizing ingredients could be harmful to the artworks. As an alternative, “eco-friendly” disinfectants based on antibacterial essential oils could pose less risk.

In addition to having hand sanitizers readily available throughout their buildings, museum administrators must also determine the best ways to maintain social distancing. Most museums are expected to limit the number of people inside their buildings, possibly by requiring visitors to pre-register for a specific time slot. And museum staff may need to be deployed to control the number of people in smaller galleries.

In a museum setting, the now ubiquitous social engineering used to promote social distancing—e.g., with signage and floor markers—poses a design challenge with how to best balance safety and aesthetics. That is, can these circulation markers be installed in a way that is unobtrusive and consistent with the museum’s overall ambiance, while also keeping people apart?

Then there is the question of face masks. According to media reports from Germany, where some museums recently reopened, “most, but not all, museums require visitors to wear masks.” Museums in Switzerland, on the other hand, are taking a more relaxed approach, at least for now. Visitors to recently reopened Swiss museums report that only a handful of employees and a minority of visitors were wearing masks.

And what about important accouterments like audio guides and interactive displays? And amenities like cafés and gift shops? These are often an integral part of the museum experience and, in some cases, generate significant revenue. The Zurich Kunsthaus in Switzerland, for example, continues to offer audio guides; the museum notes that “these are disinfected before and after every use, as has always been the case.” Its gift shop and café also remain open although with plexiglass dividers separating staff and visitors, and fewer tables in the dining area.

Attracting and engaging visitors
Although museums’ financial situations and funding sources vary widely, all are now contemplating an indeterminate period of vastly diminished revenues. Tourists aren’t likely to return anytime soon, and special exhibitions, membership events, fundraising benefits and similar activities may be curtailed if not suspended for the foreseeable future. Moreover, due to extraordinary financial pressures facing governments at all levels, the public funding upon which many museums rely for some part of their expenses could start to dry up.

Given this altered reality, how will museums continue to attract and engage visitors? Many will apply the lessons learned during the lockdown phase and continue to come up with creative and innovative digital forms of audience engagement. A museum in Washington D.C., for instance, recently hosted a virtual event that attracted attendees from all over the world; a much larger and more diverse crowd than would have attended a similar in-person event. Based on this experience, this museum plans to incorporate a virtual component into all its future events.

On the other hand, the layouts and physical spaces of many museums are already conducive to social distancing. Recent research found that museum goers interact with far fewer people and are much less likely to touch shared surfaces compared with people visiting a wide variety of other such public places as restaurants, malls, gyms, amusement parks and so on.

Which raises an intriguing question: might the absence of out-of-town visitors be partially offset by a boost in local visitors looking for an alternative to the sporting events, concerts, festivals and similar activities that remain shut down? Including local people who ordinarily aren’t museum goers? Anecdotally, friends and acquaintances in European cities also report they now plan to visit museums and galleries they generally avoid when packed with throngs of tourists. Today, however, they look forward to “having the place to myself.”

Time will tell, of course. Nonetheless, this period could be an opportunity for museums to connect with new audiences while also strengthening their bonds with their local communities.

A welcoming oasis
In our previous article, we noted that “…the solace, inspiration and hope we individually and intimately draw from art are perhaps more important now than ever.”

That remains true. Like an oasis in the middle of the desert, museums offer respite from the stresses of the world as well as “solace, inspiration and hope.” Moreover, while we often visit museums with family and friends, the experience ultimately is “individual and intimate.”

Which suggests a final question: Will museums begin to embrace a back-to-basics approach with renewed focus on the simple interaction between viewer and artwork? For many years now, museums have devoted considerable resources to attracting visitors via avenues that may not be viable for some time including large-scale events and interactive as well as multisensory activities. While those efforts were once effective in building and sustaining an audience, perhaps now the draw will be more basic; the safety, simplicity and solace of simply standing in front of great works of art.

Many of the challenges confronting museum administrators ultimately relate to economic and curatorial considerations that are beyond the purview of our art experts and risk consultants. However, AXA XL can provide guidance and support in assessing a museum’s safety and hygiene practices, as well as its security systems/measures. We understand that ensuring the safety and security of staff, visitors and the collection is paramount, and we stand ready to help museums achieve this fundamental imperative.


About AXA XL

AXA XL is the P&C and specialty risk division of AXA which provides property, casualty, professional and speciality products to industrial, commercial and professional firms, insurance companies and other enterprises, here in the UK and throughout the world. With underwriting teams based in the US, UK, EMEA and Asia Pacific regions, we can make decisions close to the markets you serve and work with you to tailor cover to your business needs.

We help businesses adapt and thrive amidst change. Rather than just paying covered claims when things go wrong, we go beyond protection into prevention so your business can go beyond the unexpected.

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