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Crisis and engagement
The emotional toll of museum work during the COVID-19 pandemic

As locations that interpret and present the histories of places and people, museums are affective spaces with emotional impacts shaping how we think about ourselves and others. The emotional impact of museums is primarily considered from the perspective of the visitor, with museums as ‘places where people go to feel, to be emotional’. What is less well established is the emotional resonance of museums as a place of work. Those employed in museums, cultural or heritage sectors can become rooted in their work, drawing upon their personal histories as motivation and inspiration, influencing the subject matter they engage with or the approaches they take. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emotional labour of museum work was both exposed and intensified in workers’ responses to the crisis. This chapter is a consideration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the museum workforce in Northern Ireland, drawing upon findings from the UKRI-funded project Museums, Crisis and Covid19, based at Ulster University. Focusing on the workplace, we argue, is another route to understanding museum impacts, purposes, value and ethics, an avenue that is barely touched on in existing museum studies literature. Drawing upon interviews, focus group discussions and workshops with people working in and with museums, from a variety of positions and institutions in Northern Ireland, this chapter begins to fill that gap in understanding.

As locations that interpret and present the histories of places and people, museums are affective spaces with emotional impacts shaping how we think about ourselves and others. Flora Kaplan’s book Museums and the Making of ‘Ourselves’ is a reminder that museums are about us, and when our stories are told in museum spaces those stories will affect us (Kaplan, 1994). In Museums, Emotion and Memory Culture, Gönül Bozoğlu details her own emotional responses to her research field notes, becoming an increasingly central part of her work (Bozoğlu, 2019). The emotional impact of museums is primarily considered from the perspective of the visitor, with museums as ‘places where people go to feel, to be emotional’ (Smith, 2014: 125). What is less well established is the emotional resonance of museums as a place of work. Those employed in museums, cultural or heritage sectors can become rooted in their work, drawing upon their personal histories as motivation and inspiration, influencing the subject matter they engage with or the approaches they take. For instance, the notion of the ‘activist curator’ is now well established as an alignment of personal values and workplace roles (Hollows, 2019). Taken together, these examples demonstrate that the outcome of work can be as personally meaningful as it is professionally important. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that the emotional labour of museum work was both exposed and intensified in workers’ responses to the crisis.

This chapter is a consideration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the museum workforce in Northern Ireland, drawing upon findings from the UKRI-funded project Museums, Crisis and Covid19, based at Ulster University. With the Museums Association, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Northern Ireland Museums Council and the Tower Museum Derry/Londonderry, the project worked alongside the museum sector as it adapted and moved online; advised on the importance of financial support measures that proved a lifeline for the sector; and explored how museums re-articulated their roles during the pandemic. With the principal outputs focusing on changes to museum operations, digital adaptations and the wellbeing role of the museum sector, this chapter focuses on findings beyond the scope of the original project (Crooke et al., 2022a; 2022b; 2022c). While undertaking interviews and focus groups with staff in museums, documenting the impact of the public health measures on the sector, the researchers had not predicted quite how much our contributors would reveal about how the pandemic altered their relationship with their work.1 As well as changes to routine, methods of working and concerns about precarity, which are shared by other sectors, we found impacts arising from being museum workers. The idea of the museum community changed, both in terms of how staff connected with their audiences and the experiences of community among those who work in museums. As researchers, we learned about the emotional toll of leaving the museum and returning. Individuals spoke about the personal impacts of needing to halt or transform methods of public engagement and outreach work, knowing that some users depended on museum programmes for social interaction. Additionally, respondents voiced the added uncertainty of working in a sector that appeared to have become even more vulnerable, given that most museums relied, at that time, on visitors to the physical building. Here the emotional toll is pushed even further. Knowing the challenges of public and third-sector funding, museum workers needed not only to be relevant and resilient during the crisis, but also to be seen to be making those adaptations by those responsible for allocating public funds to the sector.

During our engagements with museum staff, the importance of their work and the personal connections with it was a re-occurring theme. We found that the pandemic both exposed and intensified how personally meaningful and emotionally affecting museum work was. Our sample of interviewees represented museum management, curatorial and front-of-house work: roles were critical to the original Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project, which focused specifically on museum-based tasks of collections care, museum interpretation and digital adaptation in accredited museums. During the years of museum closures and re-openings, the significance of established museum tasks such as collecting, display and outreach work changed. Rapid-response collecting added emotional weight because the museum staff undertaking that role were equally vested in the pandemic experience, while carrying a sense of collective responsibility to document the pandemic for future museum audiences. The greater dependency on digital platforms during the pandemic brought with it reflection upon how to re-create an emotional engagement with the past at a physical remove. Curators and education staff in the sector referred to a professional sense of duty to collect stories and objects that would document the impact of the pandemic and represent it to future generations. As one of our contributors put it, ‘we knew we were living through something very big and, given the museum’s social role, we felt a responsibility to collect at a time of crisis’ (Brownlee, 20 October 2021).

This chapter demonstrates how deeply personal and emotionally affecting museum work can be, and how that was heightened during the pandemic. Our goal is to explore what this disruption revealed about how museum workers, who engaged with our project, strategically identified with their work and how that shaped their practice. We suggest that focusing on the workplace is another route to understanding museum impacts, purposes, value and ethics, an avenue that is barely touched on in existing museum studies literature (Black, 2021; Macdonald, 2006; Marstine, 2011). By drawing upon interviews, focus group discussions and workshops with people working in and with museums, from a variety of positions and institutions in Northern Ireland, this chapter begins to fill that gap in our understanding. In the discussion that follows, we focus on the personal and emotional impacts of COVID-19 on museum staff and their practice across three areas. First, we provide an account of the COVID-19 crisis as experienced by the museum sector and what it reveals about how museum workers navigate and articulate museum purposes. We then move to a consideration of the idea of ‘career shock’ (Akkermans et al., 2020; Hite and McDonald, 2020), and the impact of this on sector resilience and wellbeing – again looking at this from the perspective of reimagining museum purposes. Finally, building on these foundations, we move to an exploration of the emotional labour and emotion work connected to working through the pandemic.

Museums, Crisis and Covid19: rethinking purposes

Crisis is a term that has potentially suffered from overuse (Deans, 2022), often utilised to capture attention but with little critical engagement given to its use (Graf and Jarausch, 2017, cited in Deans, 2022). Friel and Beavis described the pandemic as ‘an acute, sudden, and unexpected crisis that was expected to be short-term in duration’; it then ‘quickly evolved into a chronic, unpredictable and unprecedented global life-threatening episode’ (2022: 16). For many, ‘crisis’ became the prevailing understanding of the pandemic: nationally and internationally, the museum sector wrote about the period as one of crisis (Agostino et al., 2020; Christiansen, 2020; Potts, 2020), and the word was used by our interviewees both in our conversations and publication (such as Blair, 2021). For our purposes, we utilise the affordances of crisis to communicate ‘multiple senses that things have gone wrong’ (Whitehead et al., 2019: 2), for many groups and generations at once, precipitating ‘changes, vulnerabilities, reorganisations, and new life structures’ (Moura et al., 2021: 376). In the context of COVID-19, there is a constructive flexibility within this understanding of crisis that opens our view to the multiple, differing experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic from one person to the next, as well as the shifting nature of different phases of the pandemic. The experience of a crisis from within, as we will explore further below, comes with an understanding that there was a time prior to this crisis emerging, and there will be a time after it has passed (Whitehead et al., 2019). This draws attention to the temporal boundaries imposed on crises as events. As with any understanding of an ‘event’, however, these boundaries are selective (see Farrell-Banks, 2023; Wagner-Pacifici, 2021). The beginnings and ends of the pandemic, whether understood as crisis, event or by some other conceptualisation, are and will be socially constructed. It is evident to us that there is some uncertainly about when the COVID-19 crisis will come to an ‘end’, particularly given that the legacy of COVID-19 is likely to merge with other societal challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis and the effects of climate change.

The impacts of COVID-19 and associated protective measures such as periods of restriction on movement, gatherings and business operations, have also exacerbated pre-existing inequalities both nationally and globally (Bajos et al., 2021; Perry et al., 2021). At points of crisis, however, positive and negative emotions can co-mingle and change (Slaughter et al., 2021). Anxiety over the impacts of the pandemic, for example, might be felt alongside relief that measures were being taken to combat the virus. Subsequent periods of restriction may have been met with frustration or a sense of fatigue as the pandemic moved into a second year. Within the United Kingdom, restrictions have been seen to negatively impact the mental health of those groups already likely to experience relatively poor mental health prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Blundell et al., 2022). We can also expect that museum staff and audiences were impacted to differing degrees by the pandemic, in terms of their job security, family stability and impacts upon mental health. The vulnerabilities felt and the social impacts that emerge from the pandemic and the public health response to it will be uneven depending on dimensions such as class, gender and ethnicity (Moura et al., 2021; Zhou and Kan, 2021). While the remainder of this chapter is focused upon the experiences of museums and their staff, each of these experiences sits within this broad context.

Museums, Crisis and Covid19 found that the organisational health of a museum going into the pandemic shaped how the institution addressed the challenges posed by closure, loss of income and staffing changes (Crooke et al., 2022a). How museum management teams handled the crisis, both in relation to staff management, as well as the connection with audiences, will have longer-term impacts on the dynamics within and outside museums. In our discussion with museum staff regarding their experiences of furlough, communication between management and the staff likely to be placed on furlough was key to shaping both the anticipation and implementation of the scheme. The Director of Operations at National Museums Northern Ireland told us that, at the outset, staff saw the scheme as ‘tantamount to redundancy’, whereas the senior management saw it as a temporary measure ‘safeguarding the future of the organisation’ and, it was hoped, protecting against the need for redundancies (Catney, 1 March 2021). Across local and independent museums, the experience of furlough varied: some staff remained working throughout the pandemic, while others came on and off furlough. In smaller museums that might only operate with four or five full-time staff, the museum curator/manager remained in post, overseeing other staff taking periods of furlough during pandemic phases. In a museum within a Local Authority, all staff took their ‘turn’ at going on furlough. A museum worker described her managers as handling the scheme ‘efficiently and sensitively’. Nevertheless, the longer a person had been on furlough, ‘people started to feel a bit like they didn’t have a purpose or a role’ and ‘that got a few people down’ (Anon_07). In the first year of the pandemic, it was estimated that two-thirds of those working in museums were in vulnerable roles – many of which were audience-facing roles, rather than management or curatorial roles (Johnston et al., 2020: 4). A crystallising statement during our project interviews occurred when a manager in the museum/heritage sector referred to the visitor team as ‘low hanging fruit’, because they would be the first in line to be put on furlough, revealing the uneven vulnerabilities among museum staff (Anon_09).

The pandemic drew attention to a subset of positions within the museum sector that are more precarious than other roles. This inequality within the museum workforce pre-dates the pandemic. Workforce campaigns, led by the Museums Association and the grassroots body Fair Museum Jobs, have demonstrated that those in front-of-house positions experience less agency and opportunity in their roles (Fair Museum Jobs, 2020; Museums Association, 2022a). Furthermore, at a Future Museum Policy: Northern Ireland event (Ulster University, September 2022), a point was made about the lack of voice among front-of-house or lower-pay-grade museum staff in discussions regarding museums policy for Northern Ireland. This comment from a museum worker suggests that those most vulnerable during the pandemic continue to feel excluded from the conversations that directly impact their future. While there is often a shared vocational commitment across different forms of work within the museum sector, it remains the case that some workers will operate in a significantly more precarious position while also having fewer opportunities to voice their opinions on the sector’s future.

Career shock, career resilience and wellbeing in museums

In the past two decades, museums have focused increasingly on their caring role for audiences (Morse, 2021); in direct reference to that practice, in 2022, the UK Museums Association asked its members to ‘mirror their commitments and actions to support wellbeing in their communities and support the wellbeing of those that work in and with their museum’ (Museums Association, 2022b: n.p.). Recognition of the growing pressures of working in the sector is evident in the Museums Association’s campaigns for fair working conditions for those working in and with museums. During the pandemic, a particular focus on the mental health of museum sector staff led to the establishment of an online Wellbeing Hub still accessible in 2023. The need for such an intervention recognised that working from home and furlough created disconnection and loneliness, impacting both professional and personal wellbeing (Museums Association, 2022b). As the pandemic progressed, the Museums Association added further resources on the theme of ‘understanding your emotions’. Recognising the connections between ‘logical thinking and emotional reflection’, this material was directly speaking to the impact of responses to the pandemic and offered methods for navigating furlough, returning to work or handling any risk of redundancy (Museums Association, 2022b). Here we find national recognition that occupational health is a risk factor for the sector where employment can be precarious, contract-based and low paid – all issues aggravated by the pandemic.

During the pandemic, it was impossible to separate lived experiences of COVID-19 from concerns in the workplace. Evident among museum staff were emotions such as grief, disgust, anger and fear, exacerbated by social, political and medical uncertainties (Stanley et al., 2021). Museum workers were navigating personal experiences and concerns, while transforming a museum service which they hoped would still be relevant to their audiences. In the opening months of the pandemic, and the first imposition of significant social restrictions in March 2020, feelings of fear and anxiety were understandable. In his interview a year after the first lockdown, Michael Fryer, Outreach Officer at Northern Ireland War Memorial, said ‘I remember how strange it was, just the feeling of something was happening or the sense of foreboding’ (Fryer, 30 April 2021). Speaking early in the pandemic, a manager working in a museum within a Local Authority described her thoughts when the museum had just closed for the first ‘lockdown’. Sitting at home, about to go into Zoom meeting, she was thinking, ‘My God, how am I going to manage these people remotely?’; and, because a furlough scheme had not yet been announced, ‘How do I keep these people employed’ (Anon_05). In a second interview some months later, she reflected that ‘I felt I had an awful responsibility in the sense of… I think you need to take yourself back to the mindset at the time. People were frightened and they didn’t know what was happening’ (Anon_05).

Emerging from human resources literature is the narrative of both the pandemic as a ‘crisis’ and a ‘career shock’, the latter explained as a ‘disruptive and extraordinary event’ outside an individual’s control (Akkermans et al., 2020: 1). Such an event has an impact on a person’s career, determining ‘what types of jobs will thrive, survive or become obsolete’ (Hite and McDonald, 2020: 478). Hite and McDonald suggest that career resilience is shaped both by individual characteristics and contextual factors: the former focusing on individual traits such as skills, attitudes and behaviours; and the latter being an outcome of workplace support, job characteristics and effective networks. Hite and McDonald suggest that this combination determines ways in which an individual or institution assesses a situation and adapts for more positive outcomes. If this twofold explanation of resilience is taken as a guide, it is essential to recognise that the workplace context is a factor in individual agency. The ‘career shock’ of museum closures meant that staff had to navigate the experience of furlough and job insecurity and, when they returned to work, adapt their roles. Systematic inequalities in workplaces have been to the detriment of personal agency, a point highlighted by the Museums Association workforce campaigns. This very factor was critical to workforce experiences of the pandemic, which varied greatly among the diversity of roles in the museum sector.

Because our sample of interviewees were people hoping for a lifetime of work in the museum or heritage sectors, the notion of career shock is reflected in how they described the impact of the pandemic on their working practices. In our project interviews with museum managers, the experience of shock is evident in the language they use to describe the realisation that the pandemic was leading to museum closures and radically different ways of working. One referred to it as ‘an out-of-ordinary event’ (Anon_01), implying it was something no one could plan for; another described it as ‘unprecedented’, and a time ‘when everything went pear shaped’ (Anon_05). The lack of institutional preparedness for such an event is a damning reflection of governmental communication and action in response to their own guidelines. In 2017, the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies advised that ‘there is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring’ (Cabinet Office, 2017: 34). Despite warnings to government from the public health sectors that a pandemic was only a matter of time, preparedness for such an event was severely lacking when it arrived (Mellish et al., 2020). Leading up to the first lockdown, a staff member working in an independent museum described the time as ‘so stressful … it was quite chaotic … it was kind of frustrating … it was difficult for you to plan’ (Anon_07).

The impact of this career shock emerged in our interviews with furloughed museum staff, although not always in the manner that we might have expected. A member of front-of-house museum staff said that while ‘it was difficult not working […] I was getting paid to not work. I could have been out of a job’ (Anon_08). For this individual, it was the relief that furlough support had been provided that initiated a strong emotional response. To be furloughed was far more welcome than being made redundant – the outcome for hundreds of staff in the wider heritage sector, such as the National Trust (2020). Our interviewee told us that ‘Overall, I did count myself just so lucky – sorry, I’m getting emotional – to be in the position of being eligible for furlough’. With a slight pause to hold off tears, the interview itself seemed to provide a release of emotion as the experience of furlough was relived. This emotion returned when the re-opening of museums was discussed: ‘For those of us that were on furlough, it was so nice getting back into the museum – I’m getting emotional again’ (Anon_08). In both cases, the most emotional point in the interview came when discussing experiences of relief – a relief at being provided some job security through furlough, and later, a relief at being back to work.

For those working in museums, career resilience is often tied to the larger issue of sector resilience – keeping museums relevant and in demand. Across the sector, museum institutions and individual staff embraced the need to change their programming and delivery during the pandemic, both to serve what audiences needed and as a protective measure. A manager of a museum within a Local Authority described the opening months of social restrictions and enforced museum closures as a ‘steep learning curve’ (Anon_02). Those who were able to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, whether that was navigation of the furlough scheme, or adapting their work when back in the museum, found personal satisfaction from that. Curator Manager Heather McGuicken, of North Down Museum, was one of a number of museum workers who saw the museum closures as bringing a rare opportunity to return to reflect and take stock, saying, ‘that part of it was actually great. Very therapeutic’ (McGuicken, 23 March 2021). A curator at an independent museum shared the value of being able to get to the museum while it was closed, to escape the reality of the health concerns during the pandemic. While respecting social distancing, she and a colleague worked in the museum stores one day a week, both checking collections and recording content for social media. She described those regular visits to the collection as important from ‘a wellbeing perspective’, adding, ‘It has actually helped us – the staff – to purposely take one day and go in and work in the museum and try to do these [social media] projects. The projects have actually helped the staff’s confidence, the staff’s mental wellbeing’ (Anon_03). Weathering the pandemic, learning new skills and involvement in pandemic-related work demonstrated a resilience that has given some in the sector confidence moving forward.

The changes that museum staff have embraced, if maintained, have potential to completely change the reach and positioning of regional museums. A curator at National Museums Northern Ireland reflected on the impact of embracing digital media. Before 2020, the digital offering – of virtual exhibitions, podcasts and meetings via digital platforms – was minimal. Now, connectivity has ‘moved us forward … it’s really accelerated that process’ (Anon_06). Thinking back over the international meetings and events hosted via Zoom, she suggests that the pandemic transformed how she and her colleagues thought about their museum service. She explained that greater connectivity, enabled by the digital transformation, has given staff ‘renewed energy’ to adapt how they engage with audiences (Anon_06). Some museum staff in the field found that new learning and opportunities for reflection on museum practice during the pandemic have been positive. The pandemic had ‘given us the permission to do things that we hadn’t done before’ (Anon_05). For another interviewee, this had been a process of embracing new forms of communication, describing the pandemic as having ‘definitely opened opportunities for us’ (Anon_02).

Across the board, those we interviewed took pride in how they adapted during the pandemic – whether that was learning new digital skills, adapting museum programming and connecting with museum professionals in new online forms. This is best represented by a statement from Michael Fryer at Northern Ireland War Memorial: ‘It’s certainly challenged me, but I think challenged me in a good way’ (Fryer, 30 April 2021). Another interviewee reported that furlough brought some breathing space to reflect on career objectives: ‘I was able to use that in thinking about what I wanted to do and how I could show the evidence that I was able to do that’. This interviewee was particularly proud that ‘despite everything over the last year and a half with Covid, the project still was meeting its objectives … we were really proud of that’ (Anon_07). Here we see the demonstration of career resilience as a valuable experience. Both interviewees described the confidence they now had for facing future challenges; it is evident, however, that confidence alone does not enable individuals and teams to overcome challenges. Rather, combinations of financial, training and welfare support as well as clear communication from senior management were critical to good outcomes, and experiences of this varied across the sector. For instance, museum staff working in our sample of independent museums found themselves well-supported in exploring new ways of engaging audiences during museum closures, whereas staff in some Local Authority museums found themselves re-deployed to other areas of Local Authority work, taking them away from core museum roles.

The disruptions precipitated by the public health response to the pandemic have changed how museum workers think both emotionally and strategically about their place of work. When people returned from furlough, and found they could still provide a relevant service despite the challenges of the pandemic, this was both personally satisfying and reinforced the societal relevance of the institution within which individuals worked. For staff working in front-of-house, learning and outreach roles, audience relevance was key. Greatest work satisfaction was found among museum staff when management demonstrated both an understanding of and support for adapting these roles to the needs of audiences during the pandemic.

Emotion work and emotional labour

In the past decade, due to an increasing focus within heritage and museum studies on how audiences interact with the past, scholars better understand the affective and emotional capacities of museums and heritage sites. Research has drawn attention to how objects, buildings, exhibitions and texts can elicit a felt response in those interacting with them (Bozoğlu, 2019; McCreanor et al., 2019; Smith, 2020; Smith et al., 2018; Tolia-Kelly et al., 2017; Witcomb, 2015). We can think of museums as spaces filled with ‘objects bearing information and transmitting emotions’; they are places of ‘memory and knowledge’, encouraging people to ‘view, contemplate and connect’ (Sandahl, 2019: 6). Across museums, curatorial teams and collaborators work on exhibitions and programmes that are often emotionally affecting. Of the staff we interviewed, some had experience of representing the Northern Ireland conflict and its legacy in museum spaces, an area of work that is shaped by individual and lived experiences of the past four decades, as well as professional demands (Crooke, 2021; 2024). Consequently, museum outreach and engagement staff working on projects around memory and reminiscence often find themselves dealing with topics both personally and collectively affecting. Furthermore, the daily interactions of front-of-house staff represent the emotional labour inherent to any public-facing role. Museums are institutions which, with a background in communicating power (Bennett, 1995) and communicating with a degree of authority (Smith, 2006), can also impact how we feel within these spaces. In other words, we are all likely to have an idea of how we think we should behave within a museum.

This turn towards a focus on affect and emotion in museum studies recognises that emotional engagement with museums is an ‘inevitable and foundational’ component of their practice (Bozoğlu, 2019: 8). Hollows (2019), for example, sees increasing alignment of personal and work identities among museum staff working in community-facing roles. Based on interviews with museum staff, she found that those who embraced social justice roles welcomed value placed on both the emotional and the technical aspects of that work. Ealasaid Munro (2014) describes museums as places full of emotion, found in paying closer attention to the degree to which museum displays can create an emotional response. Andrea Witcomb (2015) introduced the concept of a ‘pedagogy of feeling’, directing attention to the way in which exhibits can be staged to encourage a particular ‘affective encounter’ from the visitor. Munro (2014) reflects on community engagement practice in Glasgow Museums where the museum was offered as a ‘safe, supportive space’ where people could ‘learn from and make sense of past experience … [and] build resilience’, thus ‘contributing to individuals’ emotional wellbeing’ (2014: 47). We could, therefore, view emotional engagement with museums not only as inevitable and foundational, but also designable.

The recognition of the emotional capacity of interactions with museum exhibits can inform practice within the museum, both as a workplace and a public space, as we move through the pandemic and start to respond to its lasting effects. The moments at which a strong emotional response to experiences of the pandemic might emerge can be unexpected, and an awareness of this will have to feed into the development of exhibitions that respond to the pandemic itself. The pandemic also prompts a shift in our view of experiences of emotional labour. Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ to refer to the management of emotions required within public-facing wage-labour, which can be to the expense of a worker’s wellbeing (Hochschild, 1983). Public-facing museum roles fit this description, with staff expected to engage with the public in a friendly, welcoming manner. In the interview above, however, we see emotional labour coalesced with personal emotional responses coming with a return to work. This, too, comes alongside a need to engage in emotion work. ‘Emotion work’, as distinct from emotional labour, is work focused on ‘dealing with other people’s emotions’ (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 62). This emotion work now includes a need to be conscious of the feelings that come with a return to in-person museum activity during a pandemic that is, at the time of writing in late 2022, ongoing; even if social restrictions have been removed. The emotional labour of the workplace can materialise in a mix of relief, anxiety, fear and hope, within both staff and visitors. The additional toll that this emotional labour may take on workers in public-facing roles, particularly in spaces that were subject to long enforced closures, might not yet be fully realised.

The tendency for those in the sector to find themselves personally rooted in their work is informed by the nature of the task and is one that is rarely interrogated by the sector. The methods used by museum professionals, such as outreach community work, demand that museum staff get close to and engaged with their users. In addition, the very materiality of museum work, when it includes collections or themes associated with difficult and sensitive subjects, is emotionally affecting. The pandemic placed an increasing demand on museum staff to reach out to those isolated due to lockdowns or clinical vulnerability. Combining workplace changes with an increasing need for socially engaged museum work suggests a doubling up of the emotional toll of the pandemic on the sector.

Museum staff felt a duty and responsibility to record this extraordinary time; curators referred to their responsibility for collecting the pandemic, which in some cases was cathartic for both museum staff and those generating the materials. At the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum (ILCLM), the Covid-19 and Me project brought together stories, memories, photographs, videos and audio files that captured audiences’ experiences of the pandemic. Inspired by established outreach programmes, audiences were posed two provocations: ‘What stories or lessons do you think future generations should take from the pandemic?’, and ‘A hundred years from now people will want to know what happened, how we experienced and dealt with the pandemic’ (ILCLM, 2020). The museum sought to enhance participation and interaction when people may have been fearful or lonely. Working with audiences, the museum introduced the method of life-writing, aware that to write can be cathartic even for traumatic experiences. The museum encouraged individuals to describe their situation, asking the following questions: ‘Do you do things differently now?’, ‘Is communication different?’, ‘How do you feel about social isolation?’ and ‘Is there something that has made you happy or encouraged you to be positive during the present situation?’ (ILCLM, 2020).

At a time of increased emotional uncertainty and pressure, social distancing measures disconnected people from networks of care and support. At its starkest points, these were measures that created distance within healthcare settings, distancing doctors from patients, and families and friends from loved ones in hospital, with significant emotional impact (Dowrick et al., 2021). These impacts stretch beyond frontline healthcare settings, where the sudden inability to see friends and family became a significant issue. Within the museum sector in Northern Ireland, halting provisions such as Alzheimer’s support groups sits within this broader context of the impacts of social distancing measures. The emotional stressor of the pandemic was evident in the increasing importance of outreach work during lockdowns and when vulnerable people were shielding. A curator at National Museums Northern Ireland described how their work took on a new significance for participants, one that was far more personal and affecting: ‘people were sharing what they were going through in lockdown and if they were struggling a bit or feeling a bit down or not feeling quite themselves or something. It really provided emotional support as well and people were able to share that’ (Anon_06). Among those museums that didn’t collect objects relating to the pandemic, one of our interviewees reflected that ‘none of us had the headspace to go and search out [collections] … we consciously took a step back from that … and looked at ways we could link with people and uplift people’ (Anon_02). Here we see a very clear articulation that the museum was to provide a service, in this case through the light-hearted use of social media, to provide a distraction from the challenges associated with the lockdowns.

Concluding thoughts: crisis and the museum

The museum sector is no stranger to continually needing to re-articulate its purpose and relevance, and the challenges posed by the pandemic have extended that need further. In the UK, the pandemic has come after a decade of austerity which has seen cuts to public sector spending in arts and culture (Rex, 2018; 2020). In Northern Ireland, the multiple collapses of the Northern Ireland Executive and the protracted absence of an Assembly between 2017 and 2020 have led to gaps in governance and leadership in the region (Heenan and Birrell, 2022). During our interviews and focus groups, museum managers repeatedly returned to the concern of ‘making sure that we keep the visibility going … we were very conscious of the importance of keeping our profile going’ (Anon_02). In the focus group, a manager of another independent museum told us about the increased need for ‘proving your relevance’ (FG_Speaker2); a freelancer spoke about ‘struggling’ with counting value (FG_Speaker1); and museum staff in a Local Authority were described as in a ‘whole twist’ about how to capture impact when so much about typical delivery was different (FG_Speaker4). All the adaptations demonstrated by museums, and the resilience shown by museum workers gathered by the Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project, are tinged with a need to manage the narrative associated with the museums and the wider creative industries during the pandemic. Evidence that museums adapted to the needs of their audiences is not enough alone; museums must also be seen to have adapted. The museum sector is sufficiently self-aware to know that this message needs to be heard by local and central government to enable the sector to continue to build its case for public sector funding.

Robert Janes, editor of Museum Management and Curatorship, writes of museums operating in ‘perilous times’ and reflects on the pandemic as ‘a preview and dress rehearsal for the looming climate crisis’ (Janes, 2020: 592). As we shift from the global health emergency of recent years to working through the long-term impacts of COVID-19, the sector needs to be alert to how pandemic-related challenges combine with other potential crises facing the museum and heritage sectors. These are revealed by news items and statements coming from the UK Museums Association documenting the impacts of climate change, the cost-of-living crisis, the invasion of Ukraine, disputes around sponsorship, museum closures and debates about anti-racism and decolonisation practices in museums. On the one hand, this suggests a sector facing multiple challenges; on the other, it is a robust sector tackling these challenges directly and collectively.

Despite multiple challenges, the narrative emerging from the museum sector is one of a committed workforce. An interviewee with oversight of the entire Northern Ireland museum sector reflected that ‘we have a lot of very passionate, interested and knowledgeable people working in the local museum sector in Northern Ireland, and they have so much to give’ (Anon_04). This is akin to what Bakar et al. describe as ‘a strong inclination towards work that one loves’, or work that ‘serves as a vital part of one’s self concept’ (Bakar et al., 2018: 14–15). The interviewee presents this as a strength of the sector, one that can be combined with support measures to work towards recovery. This shared passion for and commitment to museum work was evident across interviews, focus groups and online discussion forums. Bakar et al. suggest two reasons why people ‘work hard’: the first is a positive reason – they are passionate about their job and find it engaging; the second reason is negative, with people working hard because of overwhelming work demands and fears around competitiveness and sustainability (Bakar et al., 2018). We suggest the reason why museum staff worked hard through the pandemic lies in both areas. There is no doubt that individuals felt passionate about keeping museums relevant; alongside innovation, there is concern for the lasting impact of the pandemic on the museum landscape – that temporary closures could become long term; that furlough would lead to job losses; and that digital might replace the need for in-person experiences. The dissemination of a narrative of the passionate, committed and agile museum worker is, we suggest, a conscious contribution to efforts to ensure that the value of the sector is continually recognised. While museum staff worked to keep museums relevant during the pandemic, they were also working for the long-term future of the sector.

A curator of a museum in a Local Authority stated that, following the end of social restrictions resulting from the pandemic, ‘people [will] want a new emergence, [a]‌ new feeling of doing something they have the right to do’ (FG_Speaker4). Although she was referring to museum audiences, the same sentiment was repeated when talking about desire for change within the sector. The disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will go far beyond a momentary reconfiguration of tasks. The alterations to how we worked, where we worked and the type of work we do have triggered longer-term questions about purpose, intention, the impacts of our practice and what it means personally. Repeated arguments for change, which have come from within the sector and pre-dated the pandemic, have seen more energy and greater traction in the past 2 years (Janes and Sandell, 2019). Feedback from our interviews suggested that the connectivity enabled by online forums organised by museum professionals, advocacy bodies and academic groups has been empowering for museum sector staff in Northern Ireland. The forums enabled new voices and new energy, giving greater pace to the interrogation of museum practice. Hollows (2019) described the activist museum as being a place where the technical and emotional combine. The technical change that was forced by the pandemic enabled the emotion and passion underpinning museum work to come to the fore.

We opened this chapter by citing museum studies scholars and practitioners who have worked for change in the sector. Graham Black suggests that the ‘challenge of change’ is a ‘constant problem for museums, as institutions of continuity and longevity’ which are ‘comfortable with the status quo’ (Black, 2021: 3). The pandemic can be taken as a watershed moment: not only did it disrupt the status quo, it showed that museum staff themselves are what matters most when considering museum value and impact. The versatility demonstrated, and the broader experience gained through how museums adapted, should continue to inform museum practice as attention turns increasingly to issues such as the climate crisis and increases in the cost of living. Seeking to respond to local and global crises and concerns, while adopting an increasingly audience- and community-focused practice, has the potential to bring further challenge and emotional toll on museum workers. One legacy of the pandemic is our demonstration that we can change our practice when it is forced upon us by a crisis; now we must positively lead the change in museums by responding to calls from within and without the sector. This will be integral to ensuring that museums are not simply responding to crises forced upon them, but pre-emptively equipped to support their staff and audiences through these crises as they emerge.

Research respondents

Anon_01 Local Authority Museum Manager. Interview, 8 March 2021

Anon_02 Local Authority Museum Manger. Interview, 12 March 2021

Anon_03 Independent Museum Manager. Interview, 24 March 2021

Anon_04 Advocacy Body Staff Member. Interview, 31 March 2021

Anon_05 Local Authority Museum Manager. Interviews, 4 May and 20 October 2021

Anon_06 Curatorial, National Museums NI. Interview, 7 June 2021

Anon_07 Curatorial, National Museums NI. Interview, 19 October 2021

Anon_08 Visitor Services, National Museums NI. Interview, 18 October 2021

Anon_09 Museum Manager, NI. Interview, 1 March 2021

Brownlee, C. Education Services Officer, Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum [Local Authority museum]. Interview, 20 October 2021

Catney, C. Director of Operations, National Museums NI. Interview, 1 March 2021

Focus Group, five participants: one freelancer, one independent museum manager, two staff from Local Authority museums and one person from the heritage sector. FG1, 10 March and FG2, 28 April 2021

Fryer, M. Outreach Officer, Northern Ireland War Memorial [independent museum]. Interview, 30 April 2021

McGuicken, H. Museum Manager, North Down Museum [Local Authority museum]. Interview, 24 March 2021

Note

1 As part of the Museums, Crisis and Covid19 project, approval was granted from the Ulster University School of Arts and Humanities Research Governance Filter Committee to undertake interviews and hold focus groups with museum staff. Each participant agreed to participate, with some choosing to remain anonymous and others to be named.

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Knowing COVID- 19

The pandemic and beyond

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