Museum Virtual Programming after COVID-19
Collaborating on possibilities for virtual museum programming in a post-pandemic world.
Children's museums responded to the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020 and 2021 by developing new forms of programming, delivered through virtual platforms. At the pandemic's outset, the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) launched "Children's Museums at Home," a website providing families with links to virtual programs created by ACM member museums. Following up on this, individual children's museums developed a number of other virtual strategies. They live-streamed, produced podcasts and YouTube videos, developed online games and contests, and distributed digital newsletters.
Initially, these different forms of virtual programming were envisioned as temporary adjustments—as necessary adaptations to a short-term crisis. Yet moving online taught children's museums that the use of digital technologies and virtual spaces could have long-term benefits. In particular, they offered a way to reach new audiences—including those historically lacking access to children's museums. With the resumption of in-person activities, many are asking what aspects of these virtual services should be retained. How much virtual programming do audiences want? How much potential is there for reaching new audiences with this programming? How might this be managed given children's museums' limited budgets? And how would these efforts relate to in-person programming?
In 2021, as more and more children's museums migrated to online spaces, Knology and ACM began gathering data on all aspects of digital content creation. In addition to this, we held a workshop for children's museum leadership to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of continued virtual programming in a post-COVID world. Concurrently, Rockman et al Cooperative conducted survey research to learn about parents' and caregivers' experiences with and preferences for different types of virtual programming, and to determine how much demand for this there would be after children's museums resumed in-person operations.
In 2022, the ACM Trends Reports team documented both the benefits and challenges associated with continued virtual programming efforts. These reports indicate that both children's museum leaders and patrons want virtual programming to outlive the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge for leaders is now to make future investments that support community needs, and reach new audiences without adversely impacting children's museums' capacities.
To support the field, ACM, Knology's Trends team, and Rockman et al Cooperative received funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to pursue "Post-Pandemic Virtual Experiences with Children's Museums: Responding to Family, Educator, and Museum's Needs and Expectations." We're calling it the Museum's Virtual Programming project, for short (MVP).
MVP aims to provide children's museums with actionable data that can help them decide whether and how virtual programming might best meet the needs of the communities they serve. The project will also explore how ACM can create opportunities for asset sharing and development tools to optimize virtual programming for children's museums of all sizes—along with their community partners.
This three-year project will assess the virtual programming assets and needs of the children's museum community by working, first and foremost, with the ACM membership, and by speaking with families, parents, caregivers, and local educators across the country to help build recommendations that can align with the scale and operations of children's museums of all sizes. In Fall 2022, our team will be developing baseline instruments and criteria for a cohort of ten ACM member museums who will work with their audiences and community partners to facilitate data collection. This data collection will begin in Spring 2023, and will be led by Rockman et al Cooperative. Concurrent with this, ACM and Knology will begin diving deeper into ACM member museum's virtual programming offerings.
As with all ACM, Knology, and Rockman et al Cooperative initiatives, the team will center its work in principles of equity. Although the shift to online programming has not been as easy for those living in marginalized communities, that does not discount the value of online for all. Together, the team will consult with children's museum member families, early childhood educators, and those who lack access to children's museums or live in traditionally underserved communities.
Together, we believe that a collaborative approach can create a path to better meet the needs of those audiences who have historically not been able to access children's museums, and to help all institutions within this field extend their reach and services.
ACM Trends Report 5.1: Expanding the Role of Virtual Programming in Children's Museums
In Volume 4 of the ACM Trends Report series, we focused on the many ways that children's museums adapted to serving their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2021, Knology and the Association of Children's Museums launched an annual series of discussion forums that bring together a panel of external experts to share recent research that might affect children's museum operations. Our first forum focused on virtual programming. The idea for this discussion forum came from the Spring 2021 ACM COVID impact survey which suggested that about two-thirds of museums (n = 43 out of 67) were interested in continuing to offer virtual programming or engaging with communities online even after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
ACM Trends Report 5.2: Parents and Caregivers Preferences for Virtual Programming
For this ACM Trends Report, we invited Scott Burg from Rockman et al Cooperative (www.rockman.com) to write about his team's research during the pandemic around parents and caregivers' preferences for virtual programming by children's museums. Scott was a speaker at a discussion forum with ACM members focused on virtual programming in October 2021 (See ACM Trends Report 5.1 for details).
ACM Trends Report 5.3: Key Concepts: Trust
This ACM Trends Report delves into the topic of trust, which is particularly important as museums reach out to new audiences with activities such as virtual programming. Knology researcher John Voiklis shares what research suggests about the nature of trust and its impact on the relationship between a museum and its audience(s). Voiklis offers children's museums some preliminary advice on how to apply these principles, drawing from a large-scale study that Knology conducted with institutions that play a similar role in the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children: zoos and aquariums.
ACM Trends Report 5.4: Virtual Programming in Action: National Children's Museum
We invited staff from National Children's Museum (NCM) in Washington, DC, to write about their experiences with virtual programming during COVID-19. This trends report (1) looks at the different kinds of virtual programming offered at the museum during the pandemic; (2) provides metrics of engagement with their online offerings, as well as (3) provides insights into the decisions that NCM made about the future of virtual programing on the basis of these data.
These materials were produced for Post-Pandemic Virtual Experiences with Children's Museums: Responding to Family, Educator, and Museum's Needs and Expectations, a project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The authors are solely responsible for the content on this page.
Photo by Tim Gouw at Unsplash