Museums in the Pandemic

Museum websites: What can they tell us?

How have museums fared during the pandemic? What can we learn from their websites? And could we rapidly collect crucial information from museum websites to assess the state of the UK sector? These are the questions that have driven our research since the start of the project in January last year. We are delighted that we now have some answers to share.

Over the past few months we have been studying museum websites to find phrases that might indicate whether museums are at risk of closure. We collected these phrases together and created 6 key indicators. These are whether a museum is open currently or closed currently, has applied for or received funding, pursues online engagement, has staff working, or intends to reopen.

Our computer science team developed a tool to scan museum websites for references to these key phrases. We were able to scan websites for 3,300 museums of the 3,345 in our database. The graph below shows how these indicators changed from March to November 2021.

Each line in the graph shows a different indicator, and the higher a line is, the more museums were found with that indicator. The points on each line refer to a date when we collected data from websites.

So what does the data tell us?

The data suggests that a large proportion of UK museums made efforts to engage with audiences online, and their engagement remained relatively consistent across the period for which we have collected data. At this point in the pandemic, it is likely that museums who want  to engage audiences in this way have developed the means and resources to do so. This tells us that over 80% of UK museums continued to function in some form in this period.

Another key point is that the indicator for closed currently begins to decline and open currently begins to increase from April 2021. These are generalized trends, but they appear to reflect a gradual reopening of museums. This is earlier than the 17th May reopening date for indoor museums. This early move of indicators is perhaps due to museums modifying their websites to indicate forthcoming reopening and also that museums in Scotland and museums with outdoor attractions were able to reopen earlier, such as English Heritage and National Trust properties. Similarly, the indicator for reopening intent peaks between April and May 2021, as museum websites likely reflected their forthcoming reopening plans.

Following the May reopening, an unexpected trend is that reopening intent doesn’t decrease significantly. This may be explained by the fact that although museums could reopen from 17th May, a number chose to remain closed beyond this point for a range of different reasons.

A final point of interest relates to funding. The graph indicates that less than a third of museum websites made any reference to funding, and this decreases after May 2021. As we noted in a previous blog, the emergency funding situation for museums was complex. A preliminary reading of this data may be that it shows a segment of museums appealing for funding or announcing successful applications. We may speculate that these are most likely independent not for profit museums, given that government museums may have been likely to furlough staff and not as reliant on covering additional outgoings. This will be explored further as we examine the data in greater detail in the forthcoming weeks.

Looking ahead

This graph is a snapshot of what the data can tell us. The six indicators can be analyzed across a range of museum characteristics (e.g. size, governance, location) allowing us to understand variance across the sector. In future blogs, we will present more detailed analyses of this data from museum websites. We continue to collect data, and this will enable us to present longer trends as we incorporate new data into our analysis.

As with any exercise that involves automated data collection from a large number of websites, the data is not perfect as we cannot be fully confident that we have accurately identified every museum website. Also, the six indicators are broad categories that span a very varied use of language on websites. Nonetheless we believe that this analysis shows a broadly representative picture of what is going on in the sector. 

We have also designed new software that allows us to drill down into individual websites, which will allow us to fine tune our account, and we have gathered data from museum social media accounts (on Facebook and Twitter). We were able to collect that data over a much longer period, from 2019 until 2021, and that will likely reveal a more nuanced picture of the rush to online engagement at the outset of the pandemic and the first lockdown in March 2020. As 2022 progresses, we will present our findings in further blogs.

Jamie Larkin & Mark Liebenrood