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22 February 2021

What the future looks like for museums

by Amalyah Keshet, Senior Consultant

Manchester Exhibition of Art treasures, Manchester, England: interior gallery. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1856, after B. Sly after E. Salomons. Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

Last May (2020), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published an international study of 94,675 museums, reporting that 90%, or 86,101 museums had closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and speculating that more than 10% might never open again.[i]

More recent research from January of this year indicates that 60% of UK museums, galleries and historic houses are uncertain about survival; small museums being the most vulnerable to permanent closure.[ii]  

Across the pond, the situation is similar, with speculation that around 30% of US museums will not survive the pandemic.  “The financial state of U.S. museums is moving from bad to worse,” said Laura Lott, President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). “Without financial help, we could see thousands of museums shutter forever.”[iii]

An October survey of 850 museum directors in the US concluded that “the current situation is not sustainable especially when over half of museums have less than six months of financial savings left to survive. While museums are creatively finding ways to replace the traditional revenue model, they are falling short of in-person visits and events. As an example, on average, virtual fundraising events fell short of goals for the original in-person events by 34%.”[iv]

According to Art Fund in the UK, “Larger institutions have also been impacted by the pandemic, with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum planning to make 103 staff redundant,[v] about 10% of its overall workforce, and Birmingham Museums Trust cutting the equivalent of 48 full-time roles,[vi] representing 25% of its total workforce.”[vii]

Amongst these general reports, there was one headline that stood out this winter: “National Gallery charges for virtual exhibition tour as new research suggests UK museums fear for their future.”[viii] The idea of charging for an online program meant to be part of a cultural heritage institution’s emergency support for community did not go over well.

As it happens, a letter sent in August 2020 by UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden to the directors of several national museums in England was leaked to the press. In the letter, Dowden urged the directors to “take as commercially minded an approach as possible, pursuing every opportunity to maximise alternative sources of income”.  He warned that he would not be in a position to “make the case for any further financial support for the sector” if the museums didn’t generate more income themselves. He suggested measures such as “monetising digital offers”, as well as hospitality and trading activities in order to grow their revenue, and told the museum directors he would be disappointed “if it becomes apparent that revenue-enhancing opportunities were available to your institutions and you did not maximise them”.[ix]

The letter was not received well by those who were concerned the government was overstepping the limits of political interference in the cultural sector and responding insensitively to the financial difficulties caused by the pandemic.[x]

Meanwhile, a virtual symposium entitled ‘Reframing Museums’ organised in November by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and New York University Abu Dhabi, featured a roundtable discussion on ‘The future of exhibitions in a post-pandemic world’. At the symposium, Grand Palais president Chris Dercon posed the question: “Do we continue to upload endless digital content without a system of monetisation?”.[xi] A recording of the discussion can be found by clicking here.

This question was the focus of yet another symposium roundtable, Modelling the Future: New Business Models for Museums, which looked at how non-profit institutions can protect their long-term survival. Put succinctly, “museums need new business models that are less dependent on visitor numbers.”. [xii] A recording of the discussion can be found by clicking here. The lockdowns of Covid-19 have been a fundamental threat to the revenue stream of museums, which normally depend on actual visitors, and the problem will continue as international tourism remains impossible or reduced.

Having worked in a large national (with a small “n”) museum that received about 10% of its budget from the government, and was dependent on earned income, donations, and endowment income for the rest, this line of thought is nothing new to me.  In fact, my museum and others were required to pursue earned income before being eligible for government assistance. My not-very-conclusive conclusion is that going forward, the “business model” of many museums may cross the line between these two previous realities. There may be more emphasis on independent and innovative earned income streams, and less dependence on government funding – or the opposite.  Or it may be time for a hybrid model.

Through effective intellectual property management, museums can optimise and create new commercial opportunities. We can support you by developing consistent procedures, policies and tools that underpin sound intellectual property management. Find out more and get in touch to discuss via our Consultancy page, click here to visit the page.


[i]  https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373530

[ii] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2021/01/new-lockdown-leaves-museums-fighting-for-survival/

[iii] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/11/one-third-of-american-museums-at-risk-of-closure/

[iv] https://www.aam-us.org/2020/11/17/museums-losing-millions-job-losses-mount-as-covid-19-cases-surge/

[v] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/cuts-in-v-and-a-workforce§

[vi] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/07/birmingham-museums-trust-begins-redundancy-consultations/#

[vii] https://artlawandmore.com/2021/01/22/art-fund-warns-smaller-museums-will-close-permanently-without-more-funding/

[viii] https://artlawandmore.com/2020/11/24/national-gallery-charges-for-virtual-exhibition-tour-as-new-research-suggests-uk-museums-fear-for-their-future/

[ix] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/dcms-leaked-letter-museums

[x] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/09/consternation-among-national-museums-about-government-overreach/

[xi] https://ifcpp.org/news/9434997  

[xii] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/louvre-abu-dhabi-symposium


© Naomi Korn Associates, 2021. Some Rights Reserved. The text is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)

Disclaimer: The material in this blog post is for general information only and is not legal advice. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.