museums&MORE Summer 2020
BRC Imagination Arts By Debbie Eisele

An in depth discussion on how museums and other brand destinations are acclimating to COVID-19 challenges

BRC Imagination Arts is a global experience strategy design and production agency that creates transformative museums, cultural attractions and brand destinations around the world. Matthew Solari, creative director for BRC Imagination Arts, shared that for the past four decades BRC has worked for some of the most well-known destinations around the globe, such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, American Civil War Museum and more. 

Matthew Solari, creative director BRC Imagination Arts
Matthew Solari, creative director BRC Imagination Arts

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Museum of Liverpool, The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, the American Civil War Museum, NASA, Grand Ole Opry, and Ryman Auditorium are just a sample of the destinations BRC has worked with. 

“Our innovative services, business solutions and creative production process deliver experiences that touch hearts and emotionally engage guests. And our industry-leading projects exceed the expectations of our clients and their audiences,” Solari shared. BRC graciously spent time answering questions on how museums, cultural institutions and destinations are dealing with the pandemic … and preparing for beyond.

Describe how museums are keeping employees working during this pandemic, if at all.

This crisis is unlike anything the world has faced in our lifetimes. The near-term fallout is going to be painful and deep. According to the American Alliance of Museums, about one third of museums were already operating with annual operating deficits before the pandemic. Many will not be able to re-open. Those that do re-open will not return to the way things were. 

The pandemic has also exposed weaknesses in the funding of American museums, which are funded mostly from a combination of earned revenue, grants, donations and foundations – unlike museums in most other parts of the world that receive more public support. Museums all over the world are finding creative and clever ways to remain active and engaged with their communities through online educational programs, online events, and fun social media campaigns. 

Describe the unique ways smaller- and medium-sized museums are navigating COVID-19 and how they can engage audiences and hit their goals.

Most museums already had some form of online programming, but the pandemic has pushed them to significantly expand their online and community offerings. We are seeing curators opening their archives in new and unprecedented ways that take advantage of the digital and social age. 

Main show at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Photos courtesy of BRC.
Main show at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Photos courtesy of BRC.

BRC has been working with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on a re-mixed and re-mastered visitor experience for the 21st century. The strategic work we had done together gave the museum a platform from which they could make a bigger push into digital and outside-the-museum engagement. They have taken the extraordinary step of opening their archives and releasing rarely seen footage of its induction ceremonies. 

Long Live Rock Plaza
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Photos courtesy of BRC.

The Abbe Museum in Maine is turning what was supposed to be a 3-day festival into a one-day virtual gathering where you can meet artists, learn about their process, and purchase some of their wares online. In addition they will be offering live performances, educational programming, a film screening and a panel discussion.

Some museums, especially in Europe, are documenting the crisis in various ways as it unfolds in real time, asking people to keep diaries of their daily lives under lockdown and collecting objects that represent the moment. 

Museums are also introducing some joy. The Yorkshire Museum asked museum experts to submit pictures of the creepiest objects in their collections, and they did not disappoint. The Getty in Los Angeles asked their followers on social media to recreate works of art at home. The results were very creative and often hilarious. 

We’re even seeing some museums, restaurants, and movie theaters using their empty parking lots to run drive-in movies. In fact, outdoor museums and institutions who are able to leverage their exterior spaces may be among the first to bounce back. 

There are lots of other examples of museums engaging in virtual tours, live stream concerts, curator programs, as well as educational activities for both kids and adults. All these efforts don’t necessarily keep the lights on, but they do help keep museums engaged with their public.

Describe your thoughts on why small- to medium-sized museums are better poised than larger ones to introduce omnichannel retail options and provide value to customers during the pandemic.

Small to medium-sized museums, by virtue of their size, have the opportunity to adapt and pivot quickly. But really, any museum with an entrepreneurial mindset can provide value.

The Getty Museum opened its art collection to the popular Nintendo game, Animal Crossing. The game allows players to search for and download art that they want to appear in the game. While the Getty made waves with the endeavor, the technology is available to any museum. 

Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut
Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Photo courtesy of BRC Imagination Arts

The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut is no stranger to disasters. Over the past decade they experienced a devastating tornado and two hurricanes. For a small institution, they are probably the most experienced in the nation in terms of crisis and disaster management. But rather than panicking, the museum took a note from the ever-quotable Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That’s when they reached out to BRC to help them launch an entirely new strategy, brand, identity and experience.

Not to say that any of this will be easy. It won’t be. Right now, most museums are primarily focused on staying viable, keeping their staff safe, and keeping their guests safe as they start to re-open. 

The theater in Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut
The theater in Barnum Museum. Photo courtesy of BRC Imagination Arts.

Describe how you are utilizing digital channels to continue sharing content and drive funds for museums through donations or purchase of gifts.

Utilizing digital channels with hybrid offers is a great opportunity for museums of any size to flex their entrepreneurial muscles, engage their community, build new audiences and raise funds. And most of these efforts have a low barrier for entry. Every museum can do it, and many of the tools can be bundled together to amplify the effort.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin started the Governor Bobbleheads with a Cause series, honoring Governors Mario Cuomo, Gavin Newsom and other state leaders who have played a key role in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The museum is donating $5 from every governor Governor bBobblehead sold to the American Hospital Association’s Protect the Heroes Campaign, which in turn supports the 100 Million Mask Challenge. 

What has been the biggest challenge in regard to museums and their gift shop operations during this pandemic?

The biggest challenge to gift shop operations during the pandemic is that, for most museums, shop sales are driven by the in-person museum experience. An impactful and transformative experience entices guests to purchase an emotional and physical souvenir in the gift shop. The challenge, and the opportunity, is to create online and remote experiences that deliver similar emotional touchpoints that spur purchases in the online shop. Every museum should be moving into that space, if they aren’t there already. You have to find your niche, though, with interesting products and unique items. Then you have to promote them in unique ways.

Do you know of any special plans for reopening museums and their gift shops?

Museum gift shops and restaurants will have to follow protocols being developed in those respective industries and also follow government guidelines that may be different state to state and county to county. Most likely, we will see the institution of one-way paths through gift shops and social distancing measures, along with touchless checkout and new cleaning protocols. That is what we are advising our clients on.

How are museums preparing for reopening and sustaining income streams in the meantime?

Museums are preparing for reopening by focusing on staff and guest safety first. Limiting capacity and mandating face masks will be required by most institutions in the short term. Some museums are even creating fun. Operational changes that will last into the long term include new cleaning protocols, automatic doors, touchless ticketing, hand sanitizing stations. 

Museums with lots of physical and digital interactives will face the biggest challenge. Those technologies will be perceived as less safe by guests. BRC is already working with museums to develop innovative touchless interactive experiences; something we have pioneered for over a decade. 

For example, when BRC opened the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, audiences raved about how interactive the museum was. The interesting thing is that there is only one touch screen in the entire museum. What we discovered is that instead of guests touching the exhibit, it “touches” them, emotionally. It draws them in and engages them in a story. That’s an older example, but in that lesson is the key to the future of interactivity in museums.

When the reopening does occur, do you expect a surge of visitors?

Museums and attraction economists are not predicting a surge of visitors after re-opening. Based on models extrapolated from past crises, it will be a slow build. Museums that are able to leverage outdoor spaces will probably see attendance rise sooner and faster. The first audiences to return will be the locals within a one to two-hour drive. People will be staying closer to home at first, rather than hopping on a plane or train. That presents a great opportunity to build, engage your super-fans, reach out to new audiences, and build your membership base. Re-examine your membership levels. Look for new ways to connect with people you haven’t reached before. After a year, we’ll start to see people coming from longer distances. The last visitors to return will be the national and international visitors somewhere, around 2022 or 2023.

Please share any additional information or thoughts you think would be helpful to others in the industry.

This is an unprecedented crisis no one alive has ever seen. Times are tough, and they are going to get tougher before things improve, especially if and when a second surge comes this fall. Everyone got hit, and not everyone is going to make it through. But as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy advises: “Don’t panic!” 

Now is the perfect time for museums to reinvent and reimagine their future. Museums need to adopt entrepreneurial thinking. When things get better, and they will, they need to be ready to fire on all cylinders. 

Take this time to prepare, to reinvent, to go into the community and build connections. We will have new challenges ahead, but also new opportunities. Set strategic goals, then “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” 

Debbie Eisele

Debbie Eisele is the managing editor for Gift Shop Plus, which now includes museums&MORE, and Stationery Trends. Eisele is also the managing editor for a variety of specialty publications including: The Guide, Holiday Shop and Celebrations & Occasions.




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