Tips and Thoughts for Museums in a COVID World

We’ve gathered and generated lots of ideas about how museums, zoos, and cultural institutions can respond in our COVID-19 pandemic world from our conversations with colleagues, clients, and all the online discussions. They primarily fall into three categories:

  • What can we do NOW (even before opening)?
  • What can we do to prepare for reopening and AFTER?
  • Where should we aim ourselves in our ONGOING operations and planning?

Some ideas are easy and fast to implement. Some are systemic challenges. Some may have a broad impact and others may be quite narrowly focused. We hope they are of use to you and help in propelling your work to create rich, meaningful, and SAFE experiences for visitors and staff.

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Contribute your ideas by sending them to We’ll to add the idea to the list and credit you for it if you want. If you have a link to other resources we’d love to share that too.

Masked T-Rex at Museum
Field Museum T. rex (altered public domain image)

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Idea #Overarching Topic Now When Public ReturnsInto The FutureIdea
01StaffYour people are your strongest asset. More staff in exhibits can improve visitor experience, help control crowds and also keep high-touch surfaces clean. People are better at managing complex situations than any technology. Children's museums and science centers are masters at this. All institution types can learn from their methods of engaging with the public.
02TechnologyPush buttons - Switch from arcade-style buttons to "no touch" or easily-cleanable capacitance sensors. Many are identical in shape and size to the buttons you've already got and are easily swapped out.
03DesignConsider visitor flow. Some exhibits have a linear quality already, which helps. If you're currently free-choice, is there a directed flow that could work? Can freestanding exhibits be repositioned to guide visitors' paths?
04VisitationPartition your audience into group types. Create a seniors/immunosuppressed block for two to three hours at the start of the day during the week.
05InstitutionWhat is a museum? Is it the building and collections? Is it your relationship to the public? Reconsider what you are to your public if you're currently 100% dependent on bringing people into a defined place on your terms.
06DesignRemember when ADA first appeared on the scene in the 90s? We all worked to reconsider our institutions' accessibility (and still do). A similar post-pandemic rethinking is afoot. Our new normal is not a "Band-Aid" problem/solution but rather invites us to consider our institutions in every way. It's a new lens on access and equity.
07InstitutionAll institutions need to continuously evaluate themselves and their patrons' needs after these experiences. There is no one-size fits all solution.
08DesignFloor markings and areas with "active use zones" and "waiting zones" can help indicate where visitors should stand to keep a safe distance while waiting to engage with popular exhibit elements. These could also be 6' distancing floor signs that we've begun to see in supermarkets. Be sure that the waiting areas are rich with activity so visitors aren't bored.
09ContentDoes your current image and media licensing allow for rebroadcast outside of your walls? Read them and be sure you're allowed to move exhibits to virtual places. This speaks a bit to #5, What/where is a museum if our presence becomes less defined by physical walls?
10VisitationWho's gone to a historic house museum (or other compact exhibit) and ever wished for "just a few more visitors"? No one. Most people don't like crowds to start with, but most tolerate them. When moving through less spacious exhibits, consider permitting smaller audiences at a time to permit visitors to have more space. Fewer people also provides opportunity for more rich engagement.
11DesignReconsider ADA minimum dimensions for traffic flow. 6' has long been the desired minimum for high traffic passing spaces for two passing wheelchairs. Can your same exhibit experience be recreated to have 8' pathways? 10' pathways?
12DesignHave fewer exhibit elements in a space. Use this as the excuse to remove the ones that stink the name of social distancing.
13DesignReally track your visitors. Where do they go? How long do they stay there? What do they do? What do they actually touch? Formalize these observations to make decisions based on real behavior and data. This will help you look at exhibits with a new and more informed lens.
14VisitationPeople's immediate reaction after reopening will be to fear public density. It'll become less so over time. Understand that there may be real initial hesitation but eventually our desires to live in less restrictive ways will take over. This has both positive and negative implications. Recognize and document what you do along the arc of "the new normal".
15VisitationClose exhibits or key areas on a rotating basis for 10 minutes every hour...and clean them. People who really want a freshly cleaned space will follow you. People who are less concerned or at risk won't follow so closely but will appreciate knowing that you've got a system to clean each area. Provide signage letting people know to expect this during their visit.
16InstitutionExpect some bad publicity about social distancing in your institution, especially early on. Some people will react strongly and negatively to the behavior of others (and what you do poorly). Consider the critical input (and be ready with responses and actions), yet think of all our efforts an experiment and part of the refinement to improve overall public engagement.
17VisitationCan a timed ticketing approach work for all or parts of the experience? Online reservation systems may be out of reach or complicated (yet worthwhile to begin to implement). State your "maximum visitors" upfront and let the public know how many people are currently present. Consider breaking down the maximum number by every hour, half hour, or whatever works best for your institution. This may help people make choices about the right time for their visit.
18InstitutionPublish "typical visitorship" numbers for the same days in prior year/months weeks both online and in person. It can help those who plan ahead to decide when they should come.
19TechnologyCan foot pedal activation of interactives work? Knees? Simple devices can be wired to existing buttons without great cost, but be careful of potential trip hazards.
20StaffEnable your floor staff to communicate with each while in different parts of an exhibit. Try devices like walkie-talkies with earbuds so they can monitor and discourage crowding.
21VisitationAt ticketing, ask visitors to leave as much space as possible between them while in the exhibit, to be patient and to consider skipping things if it's overcrowded.
22StaffStation an "exit greeter" at the end of key exhibits or for your entire institution. Have them ask guests what worked and if they missed something they saw and wanted to experience but didn't get to. Have a staff person escort them back, if the person wants, and ask visitors if it's ok for them to jump in. People are friendly and appreciate the good treatment of themselves and of others.
23TechnologyGive out a "touch pen" to each guest. Brand them with your messaging. They're cheap and can be great swag like the metal buttons used for so many years. Collect unwanted ones at the end and wipe them clean for reuse.
24ContentLearn from today's informality. Our institutions are often quite prim and proper. Can we have lo-fi recordings from behind the scenes? Video tours done with smartphones? Keep it all under three minutes and give away the good stuff in person and through social media.
25ContentMost institutions have lots of cases in storage and artifacts off exhibit. Put together hodge-podge uncurated, well-spaced displays in unused classrooms or empty galleries to alleviate pressure on permanent exhibits.
26VisitationInclude a midweek bonus entry with each weekend and holiday ticket purchase. That way you can loosened the pressure to "see it all" on the busiest days.
27VisitationGive out recyclable food handler gloves to anyone who wants them (and collect them for recycling later).
28VisitationHave hand sanitizer stations throughout the exhibits, especially before and after high-touch areas. Check them daily to make sure they stay full.
29InstitutionConvert all drinking fountains to motion activation and bottle fill stations.
30DesignPut real trash cans/recycling bins in exhibits. Really. Ones that don't have lifting lids or push doors.
31StaffRe-evaluate the purpose, frequency and participant needs for internal team meetings. Can people represent the interest of others? Can delegation and more efficient team structures reduce exposure risks?
32StaffConsider not shifting directly from 100% working from home to 100% working in institution. Many roles can easily shift to be permanently 20% from home without impacting the bottom line. Meetings can still occur with technology or wait for "meeting days".
33InstitutionLook to the ways that other types of institutions function. Zoos can learn from art museums. Children's museums can learn from house museums. Open up dialogues between different types of institutions to learn about each other's best practices.
34InstitutionWhat can museums do to service the community beyond the usual? Can being closed on Mondays allow for a farmer's market distribution site? There are many possible re-uses that can help serve the public and keep our institutions vital within our communities.
35InstitutionKeep it simple! Look to develop the low cost, easy to implement and high return solutions first. Develop a tool to evaluate the throngs of suggestions we're all making and hearing.
36InstitutionDevelop a long-term "partial public" strategy. Plan for 25% visitation, 50% visitation and other scenarios. Besides, it'll focus your institution on what really matters.
37ContentCurrent plans for upcoming exhibits don't need to be trashed. Look at them with a new lens but realize that they likely need tweaks. Add an extra phase and extra time to be sure that all new exhibits are conceived with public security and comfort in mind.
38InstitutionThere isn't a before-COVID and after-COVID world. The post COVID world is a long, sloped trajectory and not a single moment.
39VisitationGive a small discount for visitors who verbally pledge to wear a mask (such promises are powerful). If they don't have a mask, give them one. Brand masks with fun quirky, fun visuals from your collections.
40TechnologyNew technology - plugin or light bulb screw in proximity sensor that projects a yellow light when an area starts getting crowded and red when too many people are gathered. It could be fun, especially for science centers and children's exhibits for people to "turn the light off" through their direct action. Any inventors out there?
41InstitutionCan business models support fewer people or longer hours to help spread people out? Future planning needs to consider effects on finances.
42InstitutionAre there grants in a now-COVID world that support institutions working to help increase social distancing? Be ready for them because they're coming. Be ready with real demonstrable plans to take advantage of such opportunities. Or, go after current foundations with this goal specifically in mind. Be first in line.
43ContentThe good exhibit basics still matter. Exhibits needs to surprise, entertain, build useful cognitive dissonance and show "the good stuff." Don't lose sight of why people come, but don't rely on that being all that is expected of us.
44DesignReduce the length of videos to 1-3 minutes. Sitting is less necessary with shorter content...and there's less crowding.
45VisitationThe art museum "carry stool" is a great solution for seating even outside of art exhibits. They can create a personal seat, in any location and without shared touch. Give them freely or if needed, rent them at low cost.
46InstitutionWhat's going to happen to the "blockbuster" art show? They're critical to social media and the bottom line. This is a tough one and museums that rely on them need to rethink they're role in their institution's success.
47ContentLend your collections to other institutions for longer durations. It'll permit your lendee to have longer exhibit runs and lower the pressure to get people in the doors in a short period of time.
48TechnologyMedia technologists have lots of solutions to existing touchscreens, buttons and video activation. Don't feel you need to abandon your existing content if a different hardware solution can deliver it more safely.
49InstitutionDevelop an in-exhibit branding for social distancing features in exhibit. Sticker up your current displays.
50InstitutionFeature your social distancing efforts on the web. Post them at your door. Put them on the back of your bathroom stall doors and above the urinals. Get the word out and remind people in consistent and light-hearted ways.
51TechnologyUse outdoor graphic printing and framing methods inside. They're more cleanable and tolerate it better than interior printing solutions.
52DesignAn old-fashioned red deli counter with numbered paper pull tabs and a large digital number counter may be useful for supervised interactives (or even ticket sales queuing areas). It can help crowding in the right circumstance. More sophisticated solutions are quite possible for new interactives (supervised or not).
53TechnologyUse edge-to-edge video displays with no bezels. They're easier to clean.
54InstitutionClean the underside of reader rails. You're probably gonna find some gum, but you've been warned.
55VisitationCharge less for shorter visits. Don't think of your ticket sale like a theme park entry but more like a timed service. A two hour spa treatment is a heck of a lot more costly than a 30 minute chair massage. It's ok to do it on the honor system.
56VisitationHave a quiet room with maximum occupancy and fifteen minute entries (perhaps even timed), almost like a prayer room in an airport. Don't worry about what goes in it, but have it marked and spaced with seating that's easily cleaned. People need a break, safely.
57TechnologyQR codes still need to be carefully considered. They might reduce touch for some media, but it means lots of people standing around largely unaware of their proximity to others. We know that use trails off in exhibit very quickly anyway (and that's unlikely to change). Move cautiously towards personal device systems as a solution...the fundamental issues are still lingering.
58ContentZoos are doing a great job of sharing their exhibits through social media. The animals and keepers are still there even during a shutdown. Can non-living collections be shared the same way?
59VisitationOffer web-based, personal, live "tours" by reservation each week of part or all your institution. Limit the participant numbers and have them be live chat based with real audio. Charge for it but offer deep discounts or gratis for the infirm, isolated or those unable to join you. Museums don't have to just be for those who show up. Offer them before opening hours or evenings to make it more quiet and focused. Change the topics weekly. They don't need complex scripts. Just talk to people and share informally.
60DesignPush buttons usually work just as well with elbows (if they are flexible enough). Let visitors know through clever signage or demonstrations.
61InstitutionTry solutions that may not work for the long haul. Shorten development cycles and drop ones that don't work or won't develop well with tweaks. It's ok to experiment...our public is forgiving if they know we're working on it.
62ContentWhat in-museum experiences could be offered online for visitors who are leery of being in public spaces? Consider how multimedia experiences could translate from in-person touch screen experiences to web based interactives. Considering adding video material in the exhibit onto your web page. Perhaps it may inspire some financial support from those who are so inclined.
63DesignFewer exhibit elements in a space for the sake of social distancing means there will be less content, giving you the ability to really prioritize where to create key exhibit features. This could be a cost savings because it implies less "stuff". It could also provide an opportunity for more robust experiences. Make the most with what you can put on the exhibit floor.
64TechnologyGesture tracking interactive technology may be a great way to engage visitors with media content. It's not perfected yet.
65DesignLike many newer electronics in our lives, voice activated interactives could become a part of the new normal. Can your media interactives work with this kind of input? Be careful of too much audio in any one space, though.
66InstitutionObserve how people act in the world at large, outside of your institution. How people act in the world indicates what they are comfortable with. Observing behavior in other public spaces can help us track visitor comfort levels too.
67InstitutionGet to know your community by asking them how you can be most relevant to them. How can you be a stronger source as they cope with isolation and distancing?
68TechnologyMany museums are considering becoming more app based. If using this kind of approach, include something "extra" for ordinary ID labels, like adding quick animation or coming-to-life of the artifact that might typically live in a touch-screen format.
69ContentProvide great "giveaways" via web and social media platforms like video-based tutorials (such as simple painting classes and similar activities, or in-house made podcasts featuring museum staff/experts, or deeper dives into artifacts). There are great snippets that can delivery real content, not just marketing and teasers.
70DesignMuseums are still social spaces. Integrate ways that people can still interact together keeping in mind that this will require more floor space, which will be sacrificed from other areas.
71InstitutionTake advantage of outdoor spaces, parking lots, courtyards, and more as exhibit areas - even drive up exhibits. This could be the perfect opportunity to test something new.
72ContentShare with your visitors how you're documenting and coping with this pandemic. What view might you share about it in the future in how can your visitors feel ownership in how that story is shaped?
73TechnologyProximity switches can activate video instead of buttons and they're easy to install. Some can be triggered when a visitor approaches in a room. Other proximity switches can be much more localized.
74DesignHow can visitors leave their participatory "mark"? Does the old handwritten sticky note collection become short 5 second video or audio clips in a concluding montage? Moving forward museums will have to consider how to record visitor feedback in novel ways.
75InstitutionIs the change you're about to implement going to favor certain audiences (and learning types) and discount others? Best practices still apply. Think through the broader impacts, but don't be paralyzed by it either.
76InstitutionWhat if we swapped our entire staff with another institution and were charged with reopening it? Would a new set of eyes result in changes we might have never considered? It would certainly decrease the "but we've always done it that way" tendency of thought. This is an excellent time for informal peer reviews and walk-throughs to help gain insights from another perspective. Let's use our expertise and ideas to support each other in practical, on-the-ground ways.