flexiblefullpage -
billboard - default
interstitial1 - interstitial
Currently Reading

How will museums change after COVID-19


How will museums change after COVID-19

By Jerry Vanek | SmithGroup | June 12, 2020
Interior of a museum
Interior of a museum

Traditionally, museums have served their communities not only by providing access to culturally significant artifacts, but also by engaging in scholarly activities. But in recent decades, museums have shifted away from research and instead began serving the public through education and entertainment. This shift in visitor-focus has provided some museums with additional revenue stemming from admissions, special events, and venue rentals.

However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has devastated these sources of revenue. Stay-at-home orders and mandatory closures have left many museums to make difficult decisions. As museums overcome the short-term financial impact of COVID-19, they will face the challenges of operating in a post-pandemic future. This new environment may herald innovative economic models and change the way we think about museum design.


The Impact of COVID-19 on Museums

As urban density and globalization increase, and international travel becomes more common, future health crises such as the current pandemic will occur with more frequency. Museums will benefit from having strategies in place to deal with such crises. Government recommendations to safeguard public health will undoubtedly include social distancing measures that will reduce the number of visitors allowed into the museum at any given time. As museums are compelled to adopt these restrictions, they may expect lower overall visitor traffic, lower visitor density, and lower operating income.

For museums that rely on visitors to generate revenue, social distancing can be a serious challenge if such measures simply reduce the number of visitors that can occupy the space at a given time. These restrictions may be financially impossible for institutions that are dependent on a minimum number of visitors to cover operating expenses. Museums will be faced with new demands of balancing a sustainable financial model with lower operating revenue, while continuing to provide outstanding visitor experiences in low-density public spaces.

Moreover, as museums have become more interactive, especially with more touch-surface interactives, museum goers are increasingly exposed to contact with one another. More than ever before, museum visitors run the risk of exposure to infectious diseases – not just COVID-19, but any number of contagions, including measles and the seasonal flu. The museum of the future will need to not only meet the demand for an engaging and interactive visitor experience, but it will also need to address growing public health concerns over mass gatherings.


How Will Museums Change After COVID-19 - Building GIF


The Future of Museums

Can future museums be designed to meet the challenges of safeguarding public health – not only during the next global pandemic, but against more common and frequent threats like the seasonal flu or the next measles outbreak? Such challenges include not only designing for social distancing, but also reducing opportunities for the spread of contagions. Although this is not easily achieved in many of today’s museums, the museum of the future could be designed to promote social distancing, yet not obstruct social interaction.

"Many of our current museum designs, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the Museum of the Bible, employ the box-within-a-box strategy," states Monteil Crawley, architect and experienced museum designer at SmithGroup. "We may see more museums employing this strategy in the future as it provides increased control of the exhibit environment.  It also places a greater emphasis on circulation zones for visitors to experience the content, while also allowing for pause and reflection at a safe social distance," he continues. "This can create an even richer museum experience."

Many museums today also rely on interactives to enhance visitor engagement. However, as museum visitors are likely to be wary of person-to-person contact in a post-pandemic world, they may opt for personal interactives over shared, public elements. These could include using disposable (recycled) devices, such as Google Cardboard, or virtual tools, such as apps loaded on to personal devices that would enhance the experience around particular display objects.

Such measures could serve to reduce crowding around popular exhibits by giving visitors opportunities to view artifacts from various distances, yet make the experience equally satisfying with such technology as augmented or merged reality. Rather than fight hordes of tourists to get closer to the Mona Lisa, for example, we could simply pull out our Google Cardboard viewers and stand at a safe distance, while we virtually zoom around the famous portrait. This semi-virtual experience could be even more rewarding than simply viewing an artifact up-close.  


How Will Museums Change After COVID-19 - Gallery GIF


Another means by which contagions may spread throughout a museum is the HVAC system. However, museums may already have the advantage here. "Most museums control the building to 40-60% relative humidity, which is an ideal humidity range for controlling contagion," notes Don Posson, Corporate Director of Engineering at SmithGroup. Museums may also benefit from “increased filtration in the museum’s air handling units, along with the increased ability to pressurize and control cross contamination,” he says.

Our changes in behavior may impact other museum elements as well. Public restrooms, dining and retail are all areas that currently promote the spread of contagions. Although newer restrooms already utilize hands-free fixtures, in a post-COVID museum, such elements will become ubiquitous. Crowded food courts may be replaced by smaller, dispersed food vendors. Museum diners will opt for boxed products rather than visiting crowded buffets. Large gift shops may be replaced by smaller, strategically placed kiosks.

Any measures that reduce person-to-person contact may be preferred in a post-COVID museum. This includes more generous queuing space for ticketing – or perhaps as museums move away from traditional ticketing altogether, no queuing space at all will be needed. Some museums, such as the Palace Museum in Beijing, have already begun implementing facial recognition technology in lieu of traditional ticketing.

This technology, also called Biometric Artificial Intelligence, can be integrated into a building’s security system and uses security cameras to identify individuals, granting them access to various restricted parts of the building. In a museum, facial recognition can be used instead of traditional paper tickets to identify museum visitors and open doors to specific exhibits for which they have paid admission. It can also be used to time entry to various exhibits, maintaining recommended user density within the museum while also keeping groups of visitors at safe distances from one another.

It remains to be seen whether visitors will be accepting of such technology, as concerns about privacy and civil liberties in the United States using facial recognition have already been raised.1 However, similar questions surfaced about privacy, surveillance and increased security following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Yet, these concerns were gradually supplanted by the need for stronger security. Today, it is not uncommon to see metal detectors or to be searched by a security officer before entering a museum.

In a post-pandemic museum, such crude and physically intrusive security protocols may seem antiquated and out of touch with the post-COVID mindset. As future health crises pose greater threats to public safety, and museum operators grapple with ways to stay open while keeping their visitors safe, perhaps more advanced protocols like facial recognition technology will become more acceptable.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will certainly see the world in a different way. The experience will not only change our daily lives, but it will also change the way we interact in public. Undoubtedly, this experience will alter our relationship with public space itself. It will be up to public institutions to respond to this change with creative solutions to ensure safe, yet welcoming and engaging environments.


More from Author

SmithGroup | Feb 27, 2023

Surfing the Metaversity: The future of online learning?

SmithGroup's tour of the Metaversity gives us insight on bringing together physical and virtual campuses to create a cohesive institution.

SmithGroup | Nov 28, 2022

Data centers are a hot market—don't waste the heat!

SmithGroup's Brian Rener shares a few ways to integrate data centers in mixed-use sites, utilizing waste heat to optimize the energy demands of the buildings.

SmithGroup | Aug 3, 2022

Designing learning environments to support the future of equitable health care

While the shortage of rural health care practitioners was a concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health crisis has highlighted the importance of health equity in the United States and the desperate need for practitioners help meet the needs of patients in vulnerable rural communities.

SmithGroup | Aug 10, 2021

Retail reset: The future of shopping malls

Developers and design partners are coming together to reimagine how malls can create a new generation of mixed-use opportunities. 

SmithGroup | May 17, 2021

Future pandemic preparedness at the medical district scale

The current COVID-19 pandemic highlights the concern that we will see more emergency events in the coming years.

SmithGroup | Jan 25, 2021

Amid pandemic, college students value on-campus experience

All the students we interviewed were glad that they returned to campus in one form or another.

SmithGroup | Aug 13, 2020

Renewing the healing role of public parks

While we can’t accurately predict all the ways we will respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic, it should provide a moment of reflection as we see all too clearly the consequences of our exploitation and destruction of nature.

SmithGroup | Jul 21, 2020

How design of senior living communities must change after COVID-19

The cost of maintaining high quality of care and high quality of life for senior living communities has increased up to 73% for senior living communities that remain free of COVID-19 and up to 103% for COVID-19 positive senior living communities.

SmithGroup | May 5, 2020

How will COVID-19 change the procurement of professional design services?

We can use this moment as a test-case to build greater flexibility into how we pursue, win and deliver capital projects, better preparing the industry to meet the next disruption.

SmithGroup | Apr 7, 2020

Climate-informed HVAC increases in relative humidity may fight pandemic viruses

Indoor relative humidity is a function of seasonal climate and building HVAC. The range of 40% to 60% RH may reduce contagion and help those who are infected.

boombox1 - default
boombox2 -
native1 -

More In Category


David Chipperfield's 'subterranean' design wins competition for National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Berlin-based David Chipperfield Architects was selected as the winner of the design competition for the new National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The project will modernize and expand the original neoclassical museum designed by Ludwig Lange and Ernst Ziller (1866-1874) with new spaces that follow the existing topography of the site. It will add approximately 20,000 sm of space to the existing museum, as well as a rooftop park that will be open to the public.


First Americans Museum uses design metaphors of natural elements to honor native worldview

First Americans Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City honors the 39 tribes in Oklahoma today, reflecting their history through design metaphors of nature’s elements of earth, wind, water, and fire. The design concept includes multiple circles suggested by arcs, reflecting the native tradition of a circular worldview that encompasses the cycle of life, the seasons, and the rotation of the earth.

Giants 400

New Giants 400 download: Get the complete at-a-glance 2022 Giants 400 rankings in Excel

See how your architecture, engineering, or construction firm stacks up against the nation's AEC Giants. For more than 45 years, the editors of Building Design+Construction have surveyed the largest AEC firms in the U.S./Canada to create the annual Giants 400 report. This year, a record 519 firms participated in the Giants 400 report. The final report includes 137 rankings across 25 building sectors and specialty categories.   

halfpage1 -

Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021


Magazine Subscription

Get our Newsletters

Each day, our editors assemble the latest breaking industry news, hottest trends, and most relevant research, delivered to your inbox.


Follow BD+C: