As I speak with other museum professionals, I’m seeing a growing number of examples illustrating that perhaps the biggest COVID-19 challenge may not be outside forces, but rather our perceptions of what these forces mean.  Many articles discuss the importance of adapting existing programming and trying new initiatives to make it through this time; however, there is a difference between understanding these concepts and acting on them in the face of difficult decisions.

In many ways, our brains are working against our efforts to adapt to changes around us.  Psychology has several terms for biases toward the known and against the unknown, including status quo bias, loss aversion, cognitive dissonance, regret avoidance, or any number of emotional attachments to the current ways of doing things or the museum’s past successes.  A deep dive into these topics is too long for this article, that said, a working understanding of the concepts will benefit any museum as they tackle difficult decisions.

The main point of this article is acknowledging and embracing that our perceptions mold our opinions of the world around us.  Neuroscientists commonly refer to this phenomenon as neuroplasticity.  Our repeated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors shape our brain and its functionality.  The way we see our reality is unique to us.  Our perceptions are influenced by subconscious beliefs, our worldview, and our experiences.  During challenging times such as the one we face now, this can be a blessing or a curse.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the leadership classic ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson.  In the global bestseller, Johnson points out that economic or environmental pressures are often the triggers that ultimately lead to successes we would not have thought possible had the environment around us not changed and forced us to evolve.  One of the primary challenges presented in ‘Who Moved My Cheese,’ is if your organization is going to evolve, or continue looking for successes in the places they used to appear.  This is definitely one of the primary challenges we see in the museum community.  Some organizations are still focused on the profit models, systems, and programs they considered their bread and butter pre-Covid-19.  Others are embracing new programs, and frequently finding significant wins!

I should point out that I’m not downplaying the significant economic hurdles we are all facing. Instead, I want every museum decision-maker to embrace the potential wins that we see from forward-looking organizations that are finding some beams of sunlight within the storm.  During COVID-19, I have spoken with organizations that have had their most successful fundraising campaigns ever.  I have talked to organizations that have conducted digital workshops attended by hundreds of people, including participants that have never been to the museum before.  I’ve also spoken with museums that we’re able to introduce their artwork to thousands of people that would never have walked through their physical doors through digital exhibit experiences.  Before any of these programs took shape, the decision-makers in these organizations embraced the opportunities within their respective current reality.

While we all have lost sources of revenue, we have also been given opportunities.  Our audiences are willing to consume content in ways they previously would not have.   People are willing to embrace formats that would have been considered unprofessional 12 months ago, such as interviews with artists and experts at their homes.  People are open to paying for access to digital exhibits as few are traveling.  While some of our contributors no longer have the ability to give as they once had, others understand that nonprofit organizations are struggling and are increasing their financial involvement.

COVID-19 has definitely moved our cheese.  But it has also offered opportunities to reach thousands of people that otherwise would have never gotten involved with our organizations.  The museums that adapt most quickly will end up with more involvement, from more people, in diverse ways.  It all starts with your perception of what’s possible.

Closing Notes –

  1. If you want to see examples of museums implementing great new programs, follow the hashtag #museumathome.
  2. I recommend searching ‘companies that started during the great depression.’ The stories will inspire you.

Article by Frank Bennett, originally published at

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