Museums seem like immortal places, with their august countenances and treasured holdings. Even in our TikTok era of diminishing attention spans, they draw more than 850 million visitors a year in the U.S., according to the American Alliance of Museums.
But the coronavirus was not impressed, and the effects of the pandemic-related shutdown on the country's museums have been dire, says AAM President and CEO Laura Lott. In a survey released Wednesday of 760 museum directors, 33% of them said there was either a "significant risk" of closing permanently by next fall or that they didn't know if their institutions would survive.
"There's a large public perception that museums rely on government support, when the reality is they get only a quarter of their funding from the government," Lott tells NPR.
Ticket and gift shop sales, school trips and museum events are primary sources of funding, she says, "most of which went to zero overnight when they were all shuttered."
The institutions surveyed ranged from aquariums to botanical gardens to science centers. More than 40% of them were history museums, historic houses and historical societies, while art museums represented less than 25%.
Their annual budgets ranged from less than $50,000 to more than $10 million, but according to AAM, the vast majority — 87% — said they had only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves, with 56 percent having less than six months left to cover operations.
"Museums support 726,000 direct and indirect jobs and contribute $50 billion each year to the economy. Of the museums able to reopen, over 40% plan to do so with reduced staff and will need to spend additional funds to ensure their ability to reopen safely," AAM said in a statement.
Most museums are loath to sell even parts of their collection — after all, Lott points out, that's why they exist. And sometimes they're not allowed to.
A shuttered Oregon motor sports museum, World of Speed, announced its permanent closure earlier this year and said on its website that all assets and funds would be distributed to nonprofit museums and schools over the next several months, as required by Oregon law. "Perhaps the museum's greatest accomplishment was the opportunity it provided high school students to learn the skills needed to work in the automotive industry," the website said. "What a thrill it was to see these students grow and move onto fulfilling careers after graduation."
Most of the museums surveyed made a point of providing educational resources to students during the lockdown. But those are precisely the kind of services that will need to be cut in the budget crunch ahead, according to almost two-thirds of museum directors.
A majority of museums that took part in the AAM survey will have reopened by the end of July, Lott says. They provide respite from the cares of the world, inspiration and a sense of community identity, she observes. "But when they're gone," she says, "they won't be easily replaced."