Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Children's Museums

A sub-series of Knology's ACM Trends focused on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children's museums highlighted both the challenges and resilience of these institutions.

by Shaun FieldAdam Musser
Nov 30, 2021

The impacts of COVID-19 pandemic have been widespread, cutting across different aspects of society, including museums. In the last year, Knology has studied the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s museums. Partnering with the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), Knology conducted three surveys of ACM member museums as part of our ACM Trends series. Specifically, we received responses from 109 museums in Spring 2020; 96 museums in Fall 2021; and 91 museums in Spring 2021. Data from these surveys provided the foundation for our analysis and understanding of how children’s museums have responded to the ongoing pandemic. They also showcased the resilience and resourcefulness of museums even in the face of a crises.

The thematic summaries of our ACM Trends report series on the impact of the pandemic highlight some of the difficulties that museums faced. The COVID-19 pandemic was expected to decimate children’s museums. But due to diversified funding streams, slowly increasing attendance numbers as museums re-open, and strategic long-term planning that included new community partnerships and higher-capacity spaces, three out of four children’s museums report confidence in meeting their 2022 financial obligations. As a respondent to one museum survey stated, “Our board, staff, and donors are determined to persevere. There is no other option.”

An assessment of pre-pandemic financial data from 990s indicated that children’s museums generally derive nearly half of their total income from programming services. We also know from capturing monthly attendance numbers and closure rates in our surveys that during the pandemic, children’s museums experienced a dramatic decrease in attendance which reduced their program services income substantially. In order to bridge these funding gaps, museums relied on government and private fundraising to meet their financial obligations. But these funds were still not enough as many museums were forced to cut costs through layoffs, furloughs, and reduced staff hours.

Some museums also turned to alternate forms of program service revenue, including developing and selling asynchronous activities, such as virtual programming or activity kits. They also launched successful collaborations with community health and social service organizations, schools, universities, and other cultural institutions, which helped develop an ecosystem of critical support for children, their families, and their communities during the pandemic.

Government and private funding, along with the resilience of museum leadership, and the commitment of individuals and families to participate in virtual programming and return to museums when it was safe to do so, ensured that almost all children’s museums survived. We will continue to study key aspects of children’s museums operations as they reopen their doors and continue to build back their operations in the coming months and years.

Funding (as reported in 4.9 and 4.14)

In our Spring 2021 survey, 87 museums reported having applied for local or federal government funding across multiple categories, including PPP, EIDL, IMLS, and local governmental agencies. Eighty-four museums had received funds from at least one source, with a median amount of $394,250. Overall, applications for governmental support were 80% successful. For private funding, 61 of the 62 museums that appealed to private funders received funds, with a median amount of $105,000. In general, 98% of museums were successful in their approach to private funders; however, we do not have enough data to know the full success rate of all private funding applications.

Nearly one-third of museums that responded to a question about the Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) grant indicated that they had applied or intended to apply for an SVO (at the time of the survey, SVO funds had not been awarded). Moreover, just over one-third of museums that responded to a question about the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) indicated that they had received funds, with the median value of $290,328.

Attendance (as reported in 4.9 and 4.12)

In the year prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, museums reported being open, on average, for 326 days. In the pandemic’s first year (March 2020 to March 2021), museums were open, on average, 113 days. In March 2021, data from 60 reporting museums revealed that attendance was 35% of fire-code capacity. When we compared February 2020 (the last pre-pandemic month) with March 2021, we found that museums, on average, welcomed 26% of their pre-pandemic visitors.

Personnel (as reported in 4.9)

When we looked at data from 66 museums that reported on staff reductions, 47% of full-time staff had been furloughed, laid-off, or had their hours reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For part-time staff, 76% were furloughed, laid-off, or asked to work fewer hours.

Collaborations (as reported in 4.8, 4.10, & 4.11)

Fifty-nine of 96 museums reported expanding existing collaborations or initiating new collaborations with social and health services organizations during the pandemic, including food banks, homeless shelters, community health clinics, and hospitals. The top goals of these collaborations were to share resources, develop content and programming, cross-organizational outreach, and support students during the school year. These collaborations contributed to an ecosystem of support for childhood development, family health, and community vibrancy in many communities.

Confidence (to be reported in 4.14)

Three out of four participating museums reported that they were “moderately” to “very confident” that they would meet their financial obligations in Spring 2022. While every museum had unique reasons for their confidence, we identified six primary reasons for museums’ confidence: 1) a diversified funding stream; 2) greater attendance than anticipated; 3) reduced operational spending; 4) university, larger-museum, or local government ecosystem; 5) staff reductions; and 6) new spaces with higher capacities and lower costs.

For more information about these reports and the broader ACM Trends series, please contact us at media@knology.org.

Photo credit: Aaina Sharma on Unsplash

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