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Regular version of the site

Carefully Reopening Their Doors

Reopening after the quarantine may change the way Russian museums operate

The project of the Museum town / © Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2019, the Laboratory of Cultural Economics at HSE — St. Petersburg began its study of educational online activities offered by museums both inside and outside Russia. The pandemic that came soon after highlighted the value of these new approaches which can help museums stay afloat during these challenging times. Now that they are reopening after the quarantine period, will museums change the forms of their engagement with audiences? Based on research findings, Valery Gordin and Irina Sizova answer this question.

Valery Gordin
Doctor of Sciences in Economics, Professor, Head of the HSE Laboratory of Cultural Economics, St. Petersburg

Irina Sizova
Candidate of Sciences in History, Research Fellow of the HSE Laboratory of Cultural Economics, St. Petersburg

After two to four months in lockdown, museums in Russia are now gradually reopening to visitors. Quarantine-related restrictions brought them both losses and gains. The former include, above all, a drastic drop in revenues from ticket sales, a major source of income for most museums. In addition to this, museums were unable to participate in cultural events scheduled for these months, such as festivals, celebrations and days of culture. On a positive side, museums' online audiences have expanded dramatically.

Today, museums are facing the complex challenge of dealing with the lockdown's negative impact while trying to consolidate their recent gains and observe mandatory epidemiological security measures as they reopen. This study looks at post-quarantine formats of operation adopted by 230 museums of various sizes, themes and types in eight federal districts of the Russian Federation.

New Reality

We asked the museums to rate their preparedness for using a range of ways to interact with their visitors. The majority of museums (67.8% of the sample) prefer the traditional and most common format of guided museum tours. However, they answered this question before the publication of Rospotrebnadzor's guidelines limiting museum tour groups to five persons. This smaller group size will create financial problems for museums since they cannot raise their guided-tour prices and must keep them affordable for the general public.

A partial solution may be to offer thematic tours to certain museum sections and collections, because there is no requirement to keep the prices of such tours fixed. This solution is acceptable to 44.9% of the museums surveyed. Educational tours and lectures provide another format suitable for many museums as they reopen – 69.6% of museums in the total sample are considering this option, but there are size-related variations: 62.8% of larger museums and just 50.0% and 46.0%, respectively, of small and medium-sized museums find lectures appropriate in their circumstances. Museum workers are concerned that groups of school students will be difficult to accommodate while observing the social distancing requirements. Therefore, the smallest museums (employing 30 people of fewer) are particularly sceptical of this format, and almost a third of them (31.4%) consider it completely impractical for their institutions.

Space Makes a Difference

A definite gain from the post-lockdown restrictions is many museums' acceptance of innovative approaches to engaging with their audiences, but once again, the floor area matters for whether or not a museum is prepared to offer activities such as workshops and master classes. The larger their lecture hall, the more accepting museums are of such activities: 52.9% across the sample, 61.1% of museums with lecture halls for 30 to 100 people, but only 40.0% of those whose lecture halls can accommodate 30 or fewer visitors.  A museum's exhibition area and the number of people on the staff determine whether the institution is prepared to offer quests and games: 43.1% of museums across the sample, and 55% of those with an area of at least 500 sq. m and 250 or more employees.

Future prospects for these forms of edutainment appear promising, since they are closely linked to online activities, museum community creation, social media content production, and museums creating their own mobile applications. In addition to this, workshops and master classes can serve as an alternative to guided tours where the latter cannot be offered.

Small-scale Events

Small-scale events such as film screenings, meetings with artists and scholars, mini-concerts and theatrical performances are not covered by Rospotrebnadzor's ban on mass events. For example, the official Guidelines on reopening cinema theatres do not set out the maximum permitted number of spectators.

By implication, museums could perhaps offer similar small-scale events if their lecture hall has sufficient capacity. When asked about their preparedness to screen films before or after guided tours, 53.3% of museums with lecture hall capacity of 100 and more said yes, compared to only 38.2% of those with lecture halls for 30 or fewer people.

Incidentally, museums in St. Petersburg seem to be more sceptical about this activity than their peers in Moscow and provinces, with only 37.9% of St. Petersburg museums, compared to 58.3% of Moscow-based and 48.0% of regional museums, prepared to screen films as part of their offer.

There is a similar situation with mini-concerts and theatrical performances: they are acceptable to 63.3% of museums with halls of 100 and more seats, but only to 38.2% of those with halls of 30 or fewer seats.

Scheduled Visits

In addition to the non-conventional but generally acceptable activities described above, the majority of museums surveyed have rejected some other options, such as allowing access to their exhibitions outside of the regular opening hours, with 51.8% of all surveyed museums finding this unacceptable. In particular, 66.7% museums with a small staff reject this possibility, perhaps because they are concerned about not having enough employees to work extended hours. In contrast, about 40% of larger museums are willing to try out this option in the near future.

A major finding from the study is that museums – particularly larger federal-level museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg (50.0% and 41.4%, respectively) – tend to limit the number of tickets sold for a specific day and hour.

In the short term, if the post-lockdown restrictions continue and prompt more Russians to vacation domestically, this approach may be adopted my many regional museums. In the longer term, it can help museums deal with the widespread challenge of managing excessive flows of visitors.

What Next?

Based on the study findings, the HSE Laboratory of Cultural Economics in St. Petersburg offers a number of recommendations for museums, such as the following:

  1. adopt a flexible pricing policy to compensate at least partially for losses from the quarantine shut down;
  2. combine the pandemic-related restrictions with active promotion and public awareness campaigns to explain why affordable and unrestricted physical access to museums is temporarily limited;
  3. deploy a new fundraising strategy to attract support from both corporate and individual donors. Funds thus raised may be used both to cover the museum's core costs and to support certain activities it offers to the public;
  4. build on the progress made during the lockdown in terms of online presence, with larger website and social media audiences, to reach out to local communities for sustainable long-term engagement. Offering seasonal subscriptions covering both online and offline activities may be a good option. 
  5. upgrade museum technology to enable visitors to use their own smartphones, tablets, etc. for tours instead of shared audio guides, touchpads and headphones (this will facilitate compliance with health standards). This can be achieved in a relatively short time with minimum investment by museums which already provide audio guides; their content can be uploaded to the museum's website or a dedicated repository, with a link or QR code displayed at the entrance to the exhibition space; to prevent external users from accessing the content, one-time QR codes can be issued to visitors. This technical upgrade will serve the museum over the long term, and is not limited merely to the post-quarantine period.

The study and resulting recommendations can help museums cope better with post-quarantine challenges and consolidate the most promising innovations in their engagement with the public.


Authors: Valery E. Gordin, Irina Sizova, September 24, 2020