Two museum visitors with masks on standing in front of exhibited objects.
Museums have invested heavily in facilitating safe and healthy museum visits. Photo: Ella Karttunen / Museum Card

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 created uncertainty for museums but also sparked new ways of working

The coronavirus pandemic has had major effects in the Finnish museum field. Nearly all museums closed their doors in 2020 for periods of various lengths, and the programme and service selection have been notably reduced. The state’s corona subsidies have been granted to 74% of professionally managed museums, but 76% of local museums have not received any financial support. The sense of uncertainty in the future is real. In January 2021, the Ministry of Education and Culture implemented an extensive survey in the culture field, receiving answers from 81 professional museums and 142 local museums. As a whole, the summary of the results from 2029 respondents was that the culture sector has suffered a great deal due to the situation.

The visitor numbers of museums, which had been growing for a long time, took a downward turn due to the pandemic: in 2020, visitor numbers dropped by about 42% compared to the previous year. This resulted in a significant loss of income in museums and it will also have an inevitable effect on their operational prerequisites. Up to 42% of professional museums had to implement furloughing, interruptions in the payment of staff salaries and a reduction in recruitment processes in 2020. This effect is also present in museum operations funded with state subsidies. In the local museum field, the operations are even more dependent on ticket sales and events, and the pandemic has also made volunteer work activities a great deal more difficult and limited. Finland has 153 professionally managed museums. By estimate, there are around 900 local museums.

Operations of professional museums expand beyond public work

A majority (74%) of professional museums have received coronavirus subsidies granted by the state and allocated by the administrative branch of the Ministry of Education and Culture. A little less than one fourth, however, have received no financial support. Museums have also needed to close down in early 2021. Based on the survey results from January, more than 80% of the operators estimated that their reduced service selection would be continued at the beginning of this year.

However, the work of museums encompasses a great deal more than just their work with the public. While public and community work decreased dramatically, the amount of collection work has increased and cultural environment work has continued as strong. The closing down of museums has also allowed allocating time for staff’s complementary training, for example.

Fragile operational prerequisites for local museums

Finnish local museums are regional or specialty museums owned by municipalities and various associations and foundations, managed by volunteer or part-time workers. Their operations and revenue are often strongly dependent on keeping the museums open and holding events. During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, 14% of local museums needed to put their operations completely on hold. Almost a third of the local museums taking the survey reported that the future of their entire operation is on the line due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 70% reported that planning for the future is difficult.

Continued restrictions, dropping visitor numbers and a breakdown of financial sustainability are seen as further threats in local museums. The hiring of staff has become harder and museum operations have been pared down. As recruitment has decreased also due to the savings and furloughs of regional authorities, the situation will also have more long-term effects in the museum field, as a summer job in a local museum is often a starting point for a career in the cultural heritage field. The vitality of many local museums already leans on active volunteers, who are often older people who are in the high risk group for coronavirus. In part, this has also affected the operational conditions of local museums.

Over the year, the operators’ belief in the power of locality and importance of culture has grown stronger, however, as summarised by one local museum representative: “The lack of events has increased the demand for them and has made the visitors miss them. We hope that the visitors will return to our events with even more enthusiasm! We have now realised that we are needed.”

The pandemic has also sparked renewal

During 2020, most museums developed new operational models, which is a trend that is still going strong. Nearly 75% of professional museums have developed or commissioned digital services intended for the public, and the same proportion of museums estimate that this development work will continue in 2021. Virtual museums tours have made a breakthrough during the pandemic. Based on European estimates, too, the Internet has now permanently become a more important operational environment for museum operations.

A fifth of local museums reported having developed their digital services, specifically. However, their development in local museums would require more resources and new earnings models. Despite the difficulties, nearly a third of local museums have succeeded in developing new operational models.

Of all the changes that took place in 2020, the museum field, as a whole, highlights digitalisation as the most central opportunity and a key lesson for future culture policies. According to the answers of both professional and local museums, they will need to be able to be better prepared for any crises and risk management in the future and they need to be more proactive. Some of the respondents from the museum field believe that the consequences of the pandemic will further highlight the significance of culture services to both the economy and the well-being of individuals and communities. Domestic tourism is also seen to offer varied opportunities for the entire field.

For more information, please contact:

Ulla Salmela, Acting Development Director, Finnish Heritage Agency, tel. +358 (0)295 33 6251, ulla.salmela@museovirasto.fi

Kimmo Levä, Secretary General, Finnish Museums Association, tel. +358 (0)40 166 2816, kimmo.leva@museoliitto.fi (professional museums)

Jonina Vaahtolammi, Coordinator, Finnish Local Heritage Federation, jonina.vaahtolammi@kotiseutuliitto.fi, tel. +358 (0)44 974 1705 (local museums).

Survey background

The Ministry of Education and Culture commissioned an open online survey to the operators of culture, arts and creative fields about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the operations of communities and individuals. The survey was implemented 18 January–1 February 2021. The survey was related to the impacts of the pandemic in 2020 and the estimated impacts during the first half of 2021, 1 January–30 June. Based on the survey’s results, the Ministry attempted to create up-to-date situational awareness of the impacts of this exceptional situation in the field.

In total, there were 2,029 respondents. Of them, 1,426 represented a community, such as an association, a company or a regional operator, and 603 respondents were private persons, such as artists or freelancers. Professionally managed museums were represented by 81 respondents and local museums by 142 respondents.

Effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the culture field 2020–2021: Report of survey answers (Finnish Government’s publications 2021:26) (in Finnish)