A post-pandemic resource guide for small museums, galleries, visitor centers, and other public spaces
Welcome to The Path Forward Toolkit, a guide that provides museums, galleries, interpretation centers, and other public-facing institutions with a curated set of resources and recommendations for engaging audiences, building community, and creating digital experiences in the era of COVID-19 and beyond.
To create this toolkit, we sifted through dozens of articles and guides, distilled and organized them, and mixed in recommendations for relevant products or services that help organizations turn conceptual guidelines into real content or actions. We also added an important third component: interesting and inspiring examples of different responses to the shutdown. Our studio is not affiliated with any of the products, services, or examples.
The information presented here is specifically geared towards organizations on the small end of the size spectrum, ones that do not have a large enough staff to do this research on their own. Due to our location in Maine, the Toolkit also has a seasonal slant; many of the public cultural, historic, and educational spaces in our state are only open for a relatively brief tourist season that may not arrive in 2020.
Other Resource Guides
Before we begin, here is a list of similar resource guides that we found helpful — some closely related to this guide, some more general.
COVID-19 Resources & Information for the Museum Field
From the site: “The American Alliance of Museums has compiled this guide to help museums prepare for and navigate the broader impact of COVID-19.”
Thoughtful articles covering topics that range from diversity and accessibility to engaging an audience through digital media.
From the site: “COVID-19 is confusing. We are here with facts about the virus. How does it spread? How is it treated? Who does it affect most? Unbiased information to help you make good decisions.”
Our favorite resource for straightforward, well-written, and up-to-date information about COVID-19, risk management, and personal safety.
COVID-19 Resources for Libraries and Museums
A meta-list of lists and resources that may be helpful for museum- or library-like organizations looking for field-specific guidance, such as public gardens, aquariums, and children’s museums.
Lastly, a quick note. While our studio often works within the digital realm, we are firm believers in the power of real-world experiences. We are not interested in reactionary calls to move our shared public spaces—which are now more important than ever—into some sort of Ready Player One virtual world. We are not interested in companies that are using a deadly pandemic to drum up sales. We are, however, interested in using carefully selected technologies to make experiences more engaging, magical, thought-provoking, and accessible.
Building Upon Existing Content & Strengthening Online Communities
Tools and advice to help you repurpose what you already have and share it through digital channels
When audiences are suddenly only reachable through online channels and normal operations are turned on their head, the first content task is to find ways to reach and engage those audiences with a small amount of effort. This phase acts as a community-building bridge to future efforts that will focus on new content, tailored to new mediums as needed.
Utilizing existing content and repurposed staff time is a key focus of this phase. We know that your existing content already aligns with your mission, requires minimal effort to put online, and may be completely new to the right audiences. Existing content may be a digital version of interpretive signage, photographs of trailside scenery, educational materials, oral histories, artist talks, or a video walkthrough. It can be as simple as an annotated photograph of an exhibit display or as comprehensive as a web-based version of a digital interactive.
- Build community. Strengthen your ties to your local community by beginning conversations with them. Ask what they need from you (maybe it’s something you already have!). Strengthen your ties to other organizations by boosting their content efforts and by contributing to existing hashtags/topics on social media.
- Thoughtful, infrequent posts are better than a firehose of mediocre ones. Remember that every other organization is in the same boat and people are being flooded with digital content. Your content should continue to reflect your mission.
- Begin increasing accessibility. Use this as an opportunity to focus on making your online and programmatic content inclusive and accessible to a wide audience. Beyond web accessibility guidelines, think about language barriers, reading levels, and low-speed internet connections. And, please, consult the AAM resource list for Centering Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion.
- Use your website as the anchor. Social media content is quickly buried and lost if it does not also exist elsewhere. This is fine for some types of engagement, but small organizations will reap future benefits from archiving content on their websites.
Examples of organizations building community, repurposing simple images, informal videos, and existing assets in interesting ways.
Edward and Annie
Sure, not every organization has penguins available, but if you do, letting them explore an empty aquarium is a wonderful way to give people some light-hearted content during a heavy week. Staff-recorded video clips, uploaded to Twitter and other social media channels. If you’re an aquarium, your existing assets can be as simple as the critters in your care.
Home Is Where the Art Is
Our favorite example of a comprehensive (temporary) pivot to online programming, anchored by a retooled website. Most of the programming on the CMA site (collection search, online exhibits, ArtLens app) already existed, but was quickly brought to the foreground once the physical museum closed. The CMA is a large institution, but small organizations can mimic its quick reprioritization of content.
Hundreds of museums have participated in the #MuseumFromHome trend (started by @sacha_coward), but we have been particularly impressed by how some small museums and historical sites have kept their audiences engaged. The Haliburton Highlands Museum has a staff of three but has managed to maintain a solid social media presence using nothing but photographs and artifacts from their collection, accompanied by brief descriptions.
An ongoing Twitter and Facebook hashtag that continues to be popular among small organizations and their followers, #WhatIsItWednesday posts are usually tightly cropped images or strange objects that prompt users to guess the name or purpose of an artifact, plant, or animal.
And let’s give a quick tip of the cap to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cincinnati Zoo live cams, the Philbrook Cat Pen Pals program, the front-and-centering of the Field Museum’s Brain Scoop videos, and the Leeds Museums & Galleries’ brilliant Harry Styles as Our Collections posts.
Tools & Resources
Lean on these free or cheap resources when digitizing assets, reusing media, and reaching out to your community.
If you have videos that you are transforming into online content, Vimeo is our favorite free or cheap video hosting platform (over YouTube, which we consider a social media platform with its own pros and cons). The Vimeography plugin is the best out there for integrating Vimeo-hosted video galleries with your WordPress website.
- social media
We recommend Canva to organizations who are entering the social media fray and don’t have an in-house graphics team. Its free version is a slick drag-and-drop builder with pre-made post templates for each major social media platform.
The WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool is a go-to resource for ensuring your website content is accessible. It’s not a substitute for a good web developer and can be a little difficult to interpret without knowledge of WCAG standards, but it’s a great starting point.
- social media
Make use of a tool like Buffer to save time and coordinate cross-platform social media posts from one dashboard. Be warned: scheduling social media posts during a rapidly evolving crisis is not recommended. $12/month
- social media
Biteable is a fun way to transform existing images and videos into social media-ready video content. $15/month
Adobe Premiere Rush
If you have an Adobe Creative Cloud license already, you most likely have access to Premiere Rush, a stripped down version of Adobe Premiere that is perfect for quick edits to iPhone videos and exporting to web-friendly formats. $20/month for a standalone license
Creating New Digital Experiences
Building content for community and online engagement with your mission in mind
As the future of shared spaces, public education, and workplaces continues to shift before our eyes, we know that whatever new normal emerges from this crisis will differ from organization to organization and location to location. This is especially true in states like Maine, where our population is split between a few high-density coastal counties and low-density rural communities, and where tourists and seasonal residents swing local population numbers dramatically for a few months each year. Hyper-localizing your content in direct response to the needs of your community can act as a compass for your next moves.
One inescapable aspect of this pandemic and its fallout—one faced by all organizations—is the need for new types of digital and community engagement. We are simultaneously facing a surplus of free time (due to unemployment), an increased demand for educational materials and guidance (due to school closures), and a need for art, history, and nature-based experiences that help us process our changing world. Your organization can help fill these needs both locally and globally.
- Continue to act locally (and think globally). The old saying holds true. Assess and respond to the needs of your community first, then publish your responses to a broader global audience… and allow them to make it their own.
- Create materials that will remain relevant after you reopen. Backyard scavenger hunts, creative challenges, lesson plans, website video galleries, searchable collection archives, interactive at-home experiences, etc. can all become extensions of your post-pandemic mission.
- Avoid redundancy. We are now moving into new content frontiers, and the simultaneous invention effect is in full swing. Other organizations are having the same ideas, so be careful to survey the media landscape before building something that already exists as a tool that can be repurposed.
- Create teasers, not substitute experiences. The content you create should engage your audience, benefit your community, and excite and prepare future visitors for the real-world experience.
Examples of novel digital experiences, creative community engagement, and programs transformed into at-home experiences.
Visitor Art Gallery
Using a series of creative challenges, the Cleveland Museum of Art took a typical “draw this artwork” campaign and publicly showcased the results in real time. Participants can submit their drawings on the Visitor Art Gallery website. Easy to see this integrated into classroom activities or real-world exhibits.
Online Women’s History Exhibits
We like these simple, wide-ranging online exhibits that present mini stories from the National Women’s History Museum. They add just enough interactivity to engage users, but many are just Prezi slideshows. Also check out the museum’s Digital Classroom Resources for a good example of a straightforward, filterable archive of educational materials.
One of our favorite quarantine projects. All LAM employees are available for phone conversations every Friday afternoon.
From the site: “When we were open, we regularly heard people say that they had never talked so much in a museum. And that’s right. We like to talk a lot here. But it’s not really about talking; it’s about sharing. Together, we see more. And through art, we can have the most beautiful conversations.” The museum wants to continue these discussions via the Viewphone.
A clever rethinking of the art gallery in the age of quarantine. Avoids the uncanny valley problem that plagues many “virtual” galleries by keeping things monochromatic, untextured, and focused on the work.
From the site: “In absence of new impressions, SHUTDOWN.gallery appears as a contemporary place of visual experience that intends to reawaken cultural life beyond social distancing and to literally overwrite the walls of our private space.”
Who better to create parenting resources for cooped up kids than a children’s museum? This is our favorite example of a museum assessing their own strengths and immediately using them to support their community through a fantastic collection of blog posts, lesson plans, activities, and tips to maintain your sanity while your children swing from the light fixtures.
Father and Son
This artfully designed and soundtracked game acts as an era-jumping adventure through Naples history. It does a nice job of incorporating artifacts into the background gameplay as well as the main storyline. Play it at the museum or from the comfort of your couch. Available in 10 languages!
Other inspiring projects: The Frick moved quickly to tailor programming to a stuck-at-home audience with its Cocktails with a Curator series, complete with cocktail recipes. The Akron Art Museum’s crossword puzzles were a celebration of museum collaboration. Rekrei (formerly Project Mosul) is an interesting case study in crowdsourced digitization of destroyed cultural artifacts through photogrammetry. Crystal Bridges and The Momentary created a campaign that distributes hand-colored postcards to isolated hospital patients and seniors. The Museum of Craft & Design created a wide range of downloadable arts and crafts kits for families stuck at home. The NYPL created the brilliant Missing Sounds of New York.
On the musical front, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down showed how to make lemonade out of lemons with their incredible Zoom-choreographed Phenom music video. And the Julliard didn’t do too shabby of a job with their Bolero Julliard performance, either.
Tools & Resources
A wide variety of tools to help your organization take steps toward new digital and virtual offerings. Get creative!
- virtual tour
- 360 photography
If your organization owns a 360 camera (like the Insta360 One R, the GoPro Max, or even a photosphere-ready Android phone), this is a decent way of making those images into WebXR-ready virtual tours. Check out Kuula as a similar alternative or everpano as a more powerful stitching and 3D editing tool for non-360 cameras. $11/month
Looking to create educational materials? Pear Deck integrates with Google Slides or Microsoft Powerpoint to add a layer of student engagement and assessment tools to your remote-learning resources. Free for the basics, $150/year for the full package
Distance Learning Repo
A good place to keep tabs on what other organizations are offering for distance learning resources. Maintained by the AAM EdCom team.
- virtual tour
- 360 photography
The most modern and robust virtual tour platform available. Works with the specialized Pro2 camera for high-end work, but also with other consumer-grade 360 cameras and newer iPhones. Our favorite virtual tour option if you can afford it. See a local example from the CMCA. $10/month
- work from home
Our favorite pandemic-inspired product does not involve technology at all. Keep your employees ergonomically and emotionally supported with this simple, recyclable, flat-pack cardboard desk. Approx. $75 before shipping
- 3D scanning
For those without the latest smartphone or who want tighter control over their 3D scanning, the Structure Sensor is a versatile tool that can be used as a standalone point cloud scanner or attach to an iPad. A good option for your first 3D scanning kit. $399 for the kit
Google Arts & Culture
- 360 photography
- virtual tour
More of a long-term solution, the Google Arts & Culture team works with cultural organizations to digitize spaces using a version of their StreetView technology and offers a set of content management tools for creating online exhibits. Invite only, apply here.
MCN has been keeping a list of Virtual Museum Resources that may be useful if you’re looking for more examples of organizations (not just museums, despite the title) that offer virtual tours and online resources.
Preparing to Reopen & Looking Forward
Where do we go from here?
So… what do we do now? Every organization continues to grapple with that question, even as doors begin to reopen. The scientific consensus seems to be that COVID-19 will be part of our lives for a while. With some luck, we may be past the proverbial hammer and on to the dance, but independent research has pointed to an understandable hesitation among potential cultural institution visitors. The loss of ticket and store sales, program registration income, and the ability to host fundraising events will put every organization on shaky financial ground.
Ultimately, there is only one way to move: forward, together. Organizations must continue to support the communities around them, reopen when it is safe to do so, and respond to the challenges that reopening in a post-pandemic society will present.
- Generate excitement. The reopening of your museum is an opportunity to rethink how you work and adapt to new circumstances. Stay positive in your messaging, build excitement in your community, but give people space to process and share their own feelings as well.
- Document stories and gather data. We have already seen many examples of organizations documenting the effects of the pandemic in real time and acting as archives for the stories of their communities. Keep it up and share your findings with other organizations.
- Be safe. We know that you are already doing this, but for the sake of all public spaces (and the public’s trust of our cultural institutions), please continue to move forward with the safety of visitors and staff as your highest priority. Think of those most at risk when making decisions.
Tools & Resources
We are all sailing in uncharted territory at the moment, but we have compiled some tools and services here that may help guide your decision making, logistics planning, and monetization strategies moving forward.
Guidelines for Reopening
The AAM has been maintaining this page with up-to-date recommendations, sample reopening plans, and checklists, which should apply to most public-facing organizations, not just museums.
Cuseum has been an important contributor in many COVID-19 discussions. They sell a robust ticketing and membership platform that includes pandemic-relevant features, such as timed ticketing and phone-based museum tours.
The StoryCorps App
Looking to record oral histories or document local stories from the pandemic? Get recording tips from the story recording experts and use the free StoryCorps app as a decent substitute for professional recording.
We hesitated to include this in our resource list because the product feels a little unfinished, but pay-what-you-want ticketing has potential to simultaneously open new revenue streams for cultural institutions during the shutdown while also adding a needed dose of equity to events. For a more traditional platform that supports virtual events, try SplashThat.
Toolkit for Museum Reopening
Our favorite of the reopening toolkits, from the folks at Isometric.
From the site: “In a time of health crisis and social transformation, museums are more important than ever. This toolkit empowers museums with design strategies to reopen safely and with renewed purpose.”
OpenIDEO coordinated a wide-ranging business challenge to address reimagining an organization during a pandemic, the results of which are nicely summarized here. It’s worth a read.
And of course, talk to your local exhibit designer, marketing agency, or (ahem!) interactive design studio. If they are anything like us, they are brimming with ideas and ready to help.
Let’s do this.
You made it through the guide. We admire your commitment! If we missed anything that might be useful to your organization, please email us at [email protected].
We look forward to emerging on the other side of this crisis with you, ready to create magical new experiences and face a new set of challenges with open hearts.