To say museums have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic would be an understatement. The American Alliance of Museums estimates that museums in the United States are collectively losing at least $33 million a day.

The education departments are where the blow is really being felt at many institutions. In a recent Art Museum Teaching article, Brian Hogarth, director for museum education programs at Bank Street College in New York City, notes that educators and other front-line positions have been the most heavily affected by the thousands of layoffs, salary reductions and furloughs that have happened just in “phase one.”

Yet even now while they’re hurting most, many museums have offered entertainment and solace to families sheltering in place at home with free virtual tours. Teachers have been able to take advantage of these resources to create engaging lessons for students on virtual field trips to interesting and far-away museums during these challenging times of distance learning.

Although we’re heartened see museums across the country slowly begin to reopen to the public with new safety measures in place, it’s a good time to think deeply and explore ways to support the work of museum educators so critical to students.

Educators put the works into a greater context, invite valuable dialogue and help young people explore deeper meaning behind the exhibits they view, whether virtually or on site.

Museums play a key role in critical out-of-class learning

Enriching field trips to science academies, art museums and other culturally rich institutions are something that many school teachers see as vital for students. These excursions, the only time some children will visit these places of grandeur, are not only memorable but have been shown to promote life-long learning.

A national research effort to advance understanding of the contributions science and technology centers make to public science literacy studied more than 4,500 youth and adults living in three U.S. metropolitan areas.

Of the five different types of science learning experiences studied, visiting science centers was the only one that consistently promoted both science interest in both the past and present among youth and adults. Additionally, non-white visitors were found to constitute between 55% and 72% of visitors to these institutions. Per the study, science centers are the premier resource for quality science education by minority and low-income visitors.

“Bottom line, museums make a difference. They play a role any bit as important as schools in science learning, and I’ve no reason to believe reality is any different in other subjects,” says John Falk, director of the Institute for Learning Innovation and the study’s lead researcher.

Not all museums are shuttering up education programs

The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle is one institution where leaders rethought layoffs in the area of education. That’s because, as director of education and programs, Jason Porter explains the museum will need all that talent and expertise to reimagine programs as virtual experiences plus adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19.

“Few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online,” says Porter. “The museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, and creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources.”

Along the same lines, Hogarth says, “Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these.”

An institution that is successfully acting as a vital resource for its community at this troublesome time is San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

When doors at the Asian Art Museum closed, leadership ramped up digital content with pretty amazing results, reports Amy Wilson in Hyperallergic. As viewers perused cooking demos, art activities and behind the scenes glimpses of the museum, Instagram activity soared 744% while engagement on other social media platforms increased by more than 50%

At time of reporting, no staff members had been laid off and the education department was busy sending packets out for May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to the 5,000 teachers on their email list. Not only is it a way to give teachers materials on artists often overlooked when it comes to art history, the packets include biographies of four Japanese American artists who were interned during World War II, explains Margert Yee, manager of school and teacher programs.

“They still created art despite the racism they faced, and given all the anti-Asian racism now with the health crisis, we can use this to help Asian American students feel pride as well as educate all students,” said Yee.

Redreaming partnerships between schools and museums

It’s time to think forward and to support museums by imagining how we can continue partnerships in new ways or forge new collaborations.

“Ultimately, learning is a continuous, cumulative process that knows no boundaries,” says Falk. “The more we can support learning through field trips and other real-life experiences that support and extend what happens in classrooms, the more meaningful and durable will be children’s learning.”

Hogarth urges museums to rethink the role of education beyond the constant production of events on-site. He recommends getting out into the community; offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities; and forming new partnerships with libraries and other disciplines like the performing arts to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities.

Again, the Asian Art Museum is leading the way in this regard.

In late April, the education department teamed up with the San Francisco Unified School District to host a webinar “Hip Hop to Hamilton: Making Art Work.” The conversation with Khafre Jay, founder of Hip Hop for Change, and Lily Ling, music director for “Hamilton,” touched upon what students pursuing careers in the arts can do now with live performances and art shows shut down.

“It was a really powerful way to show solidarity between African Americans and Asian Americans when people of color have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” said Yee. “The speakers talked about how we can all support each other, and it’s a great message for students to hear.”