Museums display COVID-19 financial strain

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 28th of May, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: another casualty from the economic lockdown, museums.

For months, art, history, and science lovers have had to stay away from their favorite galleries and exhibits. And that’s left many museums with a budget crisis.

EICHER: The International Council of Museums estimates as many as 13 percent of the world’s museums may never reopen. Those that do will likely have to make some adjustments.

WORLD reporter Anna Johansen talked to leaders at several U.S. museums and has our story.

KEN HAM: For us as an organization, it was a catastrophic loss of income. 

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Ken Ham is the founder of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in northern Kentucky. He estimates they’ve lost somewhere between $15 and $20 million over the past couple of months.

Summertime is usually their busiest season.

HAM: And the income in May, June, and July, we have to set aside a considerable amount of that so that we get through the winter months when there’s not that many people that come. Well, now we don’t have that income to be able to set that aside.

Ham says they had money in reserve for expansion projects and new exhibits. But they had to use those funds just to survive. They also had to lay off 80 percent of their staff. Most of the rest took pay cuts and worked longer hours. 

HAM: And so it’s really been a struggle, our zoo staff because we have a lot of animals in the zoo, the zoo staff working on a skeleton crew and some of them had to be there 24 hours a day to make sure the animals were looked after.

That experience isn’t unique. The American Alliance of Museums says U.S. galleries and exhibits are losing $33 million a day. To survive, they’re relying on a combination of federal funds, private donors and virtual fundraising.

AUDIO: Good evening everyone! Welcome to JANM’s very first virtual gala. Thank you for joining us and for taking the leap with us into the virtual world.

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles held its annual gala online. The virtual event included historical readings, a ukulele band, and a raffle for a luxury car.

Other museums are putting tours and educational material online, and looking for ways to monetize that content. 

But virtual options just won’t work for some exhibits.

Brian Statz is vice president of operations at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. 

BRIAN STATZ: As a children’s museum, we encourage very much hands on learning together, playing together both as a family and with other visitors.

That’s pretty hard to do in a virtual setting. And it obviously isn’t going to fly in a pandemic. So Statz and other staff members are making some pretty fundamental changes to the museum. Analysts are going room to room, figuring out how to restructure exhibits—or eliminate them entirely. Like the preschool gallery.

STATZ: The nature of the gallery plus the typical visitor in that gallery, which are children, 5 and under kind of just the natural thing to do is grab something, put it in your mouth, throw it, somebody else, just that kind of thing, just the way preschoolers are.

Statz says they won’t be reopening that section any time soon. 

The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are set to open on June 8th. But Ken Ham says reopening presents its own set of challenges. Of course, the museums will have extra sanitization, limited capacity, and as much social distancing as possible. But there’s a more basic hurdle: Who’s going to run the museums with so many employees still furloughed?

HAM: We don’t have the income to bring on the staff, we need the staff to bring in the income to be able to pay them and pay for the facilities.

Another problem is anticipating the number of visitors.

HAM: Okay, we can set a date for opening. But how do we budget for that? Because how do we determine how many people are going to come? When are people gonna believe it’s safe to come?

The museums typically draw hundreds of bus tours every year. But no one is doing group tours anymore.

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., faces a similar problem. Harry Hargrave is its CEO.

HARGRAVE: It’s difficult right now, because our group sales people have nobody to contact.

Earlier this year, the museum was doing a lot of national marketing, trying to draw people from different parts of the country. Now, the team is just focusing on local visitors. 

Hargrave is hoping to reopen sometime between June 1st and the 15th. But the real question is: Will anybody come?

HARGRAVE: It’s not like turning on a spigot where there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand. It’s going to be a time of people anticipating and looking and thinking and testing the marketplace out before they come. 

Ken Ham believes it could take two or three years before the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter really get back on their feet. But he believes they have one main advantage.

HAM: We attract people who are really interested in our message, and they’re very passionate about this. So I believe we will see a fairly good response as we reopen.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.

(Photo/WNG, Handout) Students in the Insectorium at the Creation Museum 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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