On March 13, 2020, the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed its doors as the coronavirus was taking hold of New York City.
They wouldn’t reopen for five months.
“We were one of the first museums to announce its closure in New York City before the mayor mandated it,” said Kenneth Weine, the museum’s vice president of external affairs. “We had never been closed for longer than three days in our 150-year history.”
The Met was soon far from alone.
That month, museums, like many other non-essential businesses and entertainment venues across the country, shut their doors for what they thought would be only two weeks to ride out the rise of coronavirus cases in the United States. Two years later, the pandemic is still not over (and may never completely be), but museums have weathered the storm better than most.
Even as COVID-19 cases surged around the country, consumers remained more comfortable visiting museums than doing any other activity, according to Morning Consult’s Return to Normal tracker, something analysts and those in the museum space attribute to the designs and reputations of the institutions — despite the fact that most museum visits are indoors. For many, museum-going was an initial foray back into the world after the pandemic shut everyone off from it.
“Museums are an easier, earlier step for individuals than maybe a sit-down restaurant, a bar or a two-hour performance,” Weine said.
And as the country continues on its path back to normalcy, museums are ready to evolve.
Consumer comfort with museums beats other entertainment activities
At the start of the pandemic, consumers were largely uncomfortable with non-essential leisure activities, such as going to the movies, attending a concert or enjoying an amusement park. Since the beginning, though, museums have been at the top of the comfort list for consumers of all ages.
Share of U.S. adults who said they feel comfortable doing the following activities:
On June 11, 2020, 30 percent of consumers were comfortable visiting a museum, compared to 24 percent who said the same of going to an amusement park and 23 percent who said the same of going to the movies, according to Morning Consult data. These attitudes have persisted throughout the pandemic, and while the gap has narrowed in recent weeks, museums are still the activity with which the public is most comfortable. Comfort with museum-going hovered at or above 50 percent throughout the latter half of 2021 and reached a high of 64 percent last week.
There are a few reasons why museums have been able to persevere better than other venues, according to Bevin Savage-Yamazaki, senior associate and culture and museums practice leader at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm.
Not only did museums introduce online experiences quicker than other activities, she said, but many reopened physical venues in the latter half of 2020 while other entertainment options were still closed. The actual, physical space of many museum venues also helped consumers feel safe.
“The architecture lends itself to that feeling of comfort. Museums are usually a little bit wider as you move through them, and the ceilings are usually a little bit taller,” Savage-Yamazaki said. “And you’re always moving. It’s not sitting in the dark.”
Many museums, like other venues, reopened with additional health and safety measures in place, Savage-Yamazaki added, such as no-contact ticketing, reduced operating capacities and mask requirements. Newer museums are increasingly including some sort of outdoor space as part of the design in order to give visitors who might be wary of spending time indoors with others an opportunity to experience the museum at their own comfort levels.
Museums’ reputations as institutions of care, experience and learning may have eased consumer anxieties as well. Known for carefully curated exhibits, museums often feature items, artifacts or works of art that are decades — if not centuries or millennia — old, requiring a level of maintenance and attention to detail that makes visitors trust the people behind the scenes.
“We are very focused on the safety and security of the collection,” said Aaron Berger, executive director of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. “We’re focused on that in our day-to-day business, so when you add in a layer of the pandemic, this is just taking existing protocols and applying them to meeting the CDC standards.”
A previous Morning Consult survey found that policies such as sanitizing high-touch surfaces or improving air filtration would make consumers feel more comfortable visiting businesses and entertainment venues. Some museums still require visitors to wear masks and other safety measures, even as localities ease restrictions.
Science museums, in particular, were prepared for the rigors of the pandemic and needs of guests.
“I would argue a science museum is the right kind to be during a pandemic,” said Richard Conti, chief wonder officer at the Science Museum of Virginia. “We have been trying to help our guests really understand what was going on and serve as almost an intermediary between the scientific community and themselves.”
Still, consumers’ comfort with museums didn’t necessarily mean they were rushing back when the buildings reopened in late 2020. Like virtually all physical businesses, foot traffic declined during the height of the pandemic, and it took time for it to return to levels anywhere near where they were prior to the pandemic.
Many museums interviewed for this piece did see attendance rise slowly throughout the last year as vaccines became more widely available:
Monthly visits to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2021, compared to 2019
“It was the Marianas Trench,” Conti said of attendance during the early days of the pandemic, referring to the world’s deepest oceanic trench located in the western Pacific ocean. While group numbers have not bounced back as quickly, he said, individual and family attendance has improved since then, and visits during the early part of last summer were near pre-COVID levels.
But museums may never get all the way back to the engagement they had before the pandemic — at least not without evolving. Several museums Morning Consult spoke to have said they’re beginning to think what their next chapter will look like in a post-pandemic world, and one in which another pandemic seems like an inevitability.
U.S. museums go local — and digital
Much of the foot traffic U.S. museums receive comes from international and domestic tourists. And while comfort with travel is rebounding now, too, after falling during the omicron wave, many museums have decided to refocus on local visitors and members.
“The place where we need to and can do something to move the needle is in a local audience,” Weine said. “The challenge there is the similar challenge that a Midtown soup stand faces, which is that work patterns have changed.”
In the pre-pandemic era, many museums, especially those in larger cities, relied on local commuters to stop in after work to see a special exhibit, grab a drink or attend curated programming, like concerts or guest speakers. But with many Americans still working from home, museums are missing out on additional traffic, leading some to take the extra step to convince patrons to return.
“We need to be creative and be flexible and we don’t know what that’s going to mean,” Weine said. “Maybe it means we have to hold different hours. Maybe it means our membership benefits need to be different. But it certainly was naive for us to think that the world is going to be the same way it was two years ago.”
Last fall, the Met started Date Night at The Met, a pay-as-you-wish program for New Yorkers featuring musical performances, discussions and food and drink on Friday and Saturday evenings. After initial success, the museum brought it back this spring.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County recently brought back its First Fridays discussion program. Reopened in May, the Grammy Museum featured new exhibits on Marco Antonio Solís, Nat King Cole and Motown Records, as well as one on the fashion of musicians such as Taylor Swift and Harry Styles.
“We had a lot of new exhibits to open back up and start a conversation, and hopefully that excitement will draw people in,” said Rita George, the Grammy Museum’s chief program officer.
Other museums are trying to meet the moment by turning to digital offerings that allow “visitors” to explore collections online and to help keep some of the excitement of a field trip alive for kids, even if they can’t leave the classroom. Over 14 months, the Grammy Museum produced 250 virtual programs, George said.
Savage-Yamazaki said these digital interventions could be here to stay, even as we move toward the post-pandemic era.
“We’re seeing a more ambient digital experience happening, with people bringing their phones and downloading the app when they arrive on site and having this opportunity for deeper interpretation into the collections or the exhibition they’re visiting,” she said.
But even with the digital environment, museums are confident that nothing will replace the experience of visiting a storied institution in person. Digital experiences will help museums as they navigate a post-pandemic world, but they know nothing can replace in-person visits.
And that, like many other physical activities, is something the pandemic has taught the world not to take for granted, noted Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
“There is no substitute for the authentic and the real,” Bettison-Varga said.