On the 11th of May 2020 from 20:00-21:00 GMT, GEM hosted a #MuseumHour session in partnership with Engage on the topic of re-opening learning spaces. This session was hosted on the @MuseumHour Twitter account and is searchable with the following hashtags: #MuseumHour #MuseumReopening and on the @gem_heritage and @engagevisualart accounts.

A summary of the conversation is below. Points discussed will be used to inform future learning guidance for GEM, Engage and the sector more widely.

Q1. At the start of lockdown, the priority was getting resources online. Now that we are looking into the future and thinking about reopening, what is the priority for learning in museums and galleries?

Safety of staff and visitors is a top priority — though there is uncertainty over how this can be done and concerns cuts to staff and income which will mean organisations will have to do even more “more with less”. Building trust with audiences will be crucial. Evaluation and consultation were also keys points during the discussion. It’s important to ask your audience what that they want and what they will feel comfortable with going forward. Evaluate the what has worked and what hasn’t during lockdown, and don’t lose the work that has been done online. Digital will still be needed and could remain as a blended learning offering alongside museum visits. There is a growing need for inclusive and intersectional practice that recognises the difference in engagement and access requirements, including those without digital access. Virtual sessions could be offered to school not confident in returning to the museum. A need was expressed for a collective case studies or spotlight on what this virtual learning looks like in the future for museums.

Q2. School children make up a majority of museum visitors. With stricter social distancing policies in place within museums/galleries and schools, how do we envision the future of school visits to look?


Schools are going to find it difficult to visit for some time, and it likely that blended learning between home & school will continue. Organisations will need to consider a range of offers and content. What can be offered remotely? Maybe more outreach to schools balanced with greater digital offers? Leaning teams need to keep producing useful online content for teachers & parents, but be streamlined and focussed in our approach whilst considering how this fits into the wider learning strategy moving forward. Could organisations think about putting more of our collections into schools? It was acknowledged that this would require thought as not all objects are suitable to send outside of the museum, but learning could work with collections to come up with a plan.

Suggestions were made to take the museum to the schools either digitally, through loan boxes/museum in a box) or even by supporting schools to create their own museum spaces and exhibitions. Museum learning departments could lead sessions virtually through platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom to engage with groups of people whether they are schoolchildren or vulnerable adults. Another suggestion was made that pupil resources and teacher CPD around resilience and wellbeing linked to collections should be a priority.

Once schools are ready to visit venues, Limited hours and times reserved for school groups will likely be needed to help limit visitor numbers and help meet distance and staffing needs. Schools —only visits may be a solution. There will be an impact on handling sessions, focus on objects that can be cleaned and swapped out regularly. What will emergency evacuation procedures look like? Are there enough toilet facilities? Lunchroom space?

Q3. Guided tours are great as they provide valuable insight but can also promote large groups of people which makes navigating difficult. What kind of changes will we see for front of house (FoH) workers as tourism shifts?


Front of house individuals are at risk when museums and galleries re —open. More personal protection equipment (PPE) will be needed e.g. protection for staff. Safety measures will have to be re —examined and tightened for procedures like bag searches, reusable kits for workshops and cleaning handling objects. FoH are vital in supplying a friendly welcome – how will PPE effect this? There is a growing concern that FoH will doing less engaging work and reverting to the old ‘invigilator/warden’ duties around visitor flow and congestion. It was noted that if there is more responsibility for staff, then additional training will be needed. FoH workers will need the support of museums to hold their ground & post established rules lest their safety be compromised.

More staff may be needed per shift, but will the sector be able to afford this? It was suggested that the senior management should be involved in reopening museums directly with front of house to ensure they are happy with the procedures put in place. Suggestions were also made for much smaller tour group sizes, timed —tickets, advanced bookings, making use of outside spaces more and amplifying the tour via personal devices with headsets to allow greater physical distance. Bring your own device = personal safety (but raises equity issues if not everyone has or can afford one).

A great suggestion for a new addition to FoH uniform was made — a tool belt with holster for antibacterial spray, holder for blue roll, hidden pocket for precious hand gel, and a hanging loop for a 2m extendable litter grabber for passing things to visitors.

Q4. Health & safety are the first priority. Moving forward, programmes for vulnerable groups in —person will be discouraged leaving many people and communities isolated. How can we as a sector safely reach these groups?


Keep a digital presence for these groups and to speak to them to find out what works. Messaging needs to be inclusive and content accessible. How we are working with these groups has changed dramatically. Ask them! — consultation will be important, but we need to remember this is a tough time and people will need time. We need to evaluate the success of lockdown programmes and look to tweak things in the future. It’s important to share evaluation with furloughed colleagues who haven’t been able to work during this time.

Relationships with vulnerable communities will be damaged when staff have been furloughed & there is no —one to support them at such a challenging time. These relationships take a long time to build but could dissolve quickly if we aren’t careful.

Will it be safest to go to these communities instead of having them come to the museum? Perhaps venues could have special hours for people at risk (like supermarkets)? Perhaps museums could send physical material/resources/care packages to these communicates or loan boxes like as was suggested with schools. There could be opportunities to collaborate with other institutions and/or NGOs, foundations, charities and community orgs those that are closer to these groups. How can we engage staff/volunteers that slot into the vulnerable group category?

Q5. For audiences who are shielded and communities unable to physically access venues, how will we continue to connect and create quality remote offers? Can we utilise outdoor green spaces?


Consider different access routes — not everybody has a computer/internet or feel competent using technology. Use digital, including broadcast, in valuable ways that contribute to the long —term digital strategy. Evaluate the successes and failures of remote engagement done so far in your organisation and with the sector more widely.

Heritage sites with gardens could reopen before buildings and could be used for learning and engagement e.g trails/bags, self —guided activity. Building confidence that premises are safe and staff are operating effectively will be essential first. Those with learning disabilities can struggle with this situation and a departure from normal modes of operation. Exclusive opening sessions/activity for small disability groups would be helpful.

Q6. What other sectors can museum/gallery learning be looking towards for inspiration and guidance of how to work with social distancing in the workplace and public spaces?

Retail – they have been forced to figure it out and will have solutions for pathfinding/marketing/communication, garden centres, food retail. We can learn from supermarkets what has and has not worked like enforced social distancing with floor markers and dedicated senior hours.

Theatre — Live theatre has done remote performances, play readings, discussions with musicians, all using remote tech to reach people where they are now. Large theme parks like Harry Potter World and Disney should also be watched for their reopening procedures.
Schools — What has been successful through home schooling and online teaching? What are they planning? What digital tools have they been using?
Community sectors — Any group that works with communities like churches, groups that use community hall spaces, libraries… Learn from what we have also been doing socially with family and friends too. Fun initiatives like video call quizzes, virtually showing objects and children’s pictures inspired by online briefs.
Design and architecture — resources and solutions for offices/workspaces. Example: @AIANational Re-occupancy Assessment Tool: https://t.co/0ZyQJ1Myyn?amp=1

Q7. How will experiences of looking, touching and working together in ‘hands —on’ learning settings be adapted to social distancing requirements? How will interactive exhibits and elements change?


If more disposable materials are being used in these settings, our sector needs to consider the environmental impact of the changes being made. There is a worry that digital resources and interactives will become the answer, but not all museums have the tech and resources to maintain this. A lot of technology in museums is old and failing and will take a considerable amount of time and money to update. This issue may compile and further divide those who can afford their own devices and those who cannot.

What if we prioritised other senses over touch? It was suggested that perhaps we as a sector could come up with a sensory experience that was ultimately more inclusive and less likely to spread germs. A greater emphasis is needed on whole body learning and storytelling through sounds/signing/movement. It may have to provide more obvious value. @museum_go podcast with @museum_exhibits a couple of weeks ago discussed this. A simple flip-up board to reveal hidden text may not be acceptable to visitors anymore. Clear cleaning protocols will need to be considered and implemented, limiting numbers with time between groups to clean down areas/equipment. Incorporating hand sanitiser dispensers/washing stations into exhibition design or wearing (washable) child-sized white gloves.

Good example from @YorkArtGallery on looking & being creative with what you see: https://www.yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/wp —content/uploads/2015/10/LOOKING —AT —ART —Teacher —Notes.pdf

Q8. Freelancers have been hit hard by loss of work and uncertainty about future income. How will working in museum and gallery learning within a freelance capacity shift in the future?


 There are many different possible outcomes for freelancers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic It’s possible that organisations will contract to core staff only and need to top up with freelancers OR they will remain the same/ tiny shrink and will do a lot of the work themselves. rethink the relationship with freelancers — could they be on retainer? Could flexibility be built into contracts so projects can go forward and everyone still gets paid if something happens?

Both GEM and Engage have announced initiatives to support freelancers like GEM’s offer of a 1 —year free membership and suppliers listing which is available until 1 June 2020 and Engage’s 2 years for the price of one offer for students, freelancers and early career colleagues.  

Q9. What have we learnt from lockdown that will inform our learning practice moving forwards?


Time moves slowly and quickly. There is emotional and physical impact on workers and audiences. Needs change and flexibility is key. Take time and don’t rush. Our sector is amazingly supportive, sharing & creative. Museums are way more than just a physical space contained in one building. Engaging with art can be silly & fun, & adults like to play just as much as children! Online resources are popular and interactive games are good.

Consultation, planning and evaluation are as important as ever. The best online activities we’ve seen connect people in a meaningful way. As we move online, we need to be careful to ensure we stay accessible. Digital can be hard to access for people. Learning from our online engagement to turn that into programmes when we reopen.

Museums DCN have great resources on digital accessibility

Q10. Let’s end on an inspiring note. Name one intangible thing that you love about museums, heritage and gallery learning… We will get through this together.


The responses to this prompt were incredibly inspiring, highlights are included below:

  • “The sense of discovery that comes with learning — there is so much joy in this sector” – @engagevisualart
  • “That moment when a visitor sees something in a new way, gets a new understanding, and you can just tell their world —view has changed. Museums are amazing that way!”  — @The_Museum_Guy
  • “The community and communities. Including this one.” @Benmelham
  • “Making people’s lives a bit better, even if only for a moment”  — @AndreaDumbrell
  • “The power of laughter from reading hilarious Twitter threads between museums. There is an amazing feeling of support from the whole sector. I love museums!” — @rachelbates908
  • “The people I get to work with – gallery educators, museum education staff, FoH staff, curators, local community groups, young people etc… We all do it for a shared passion… — @particip8tion

If you would like to get in touch with us to find out more information about joining either Engage or GEM, you can email info@engage.org or office@gem.org.uk.