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Industry in Focus: The Future of Museums

Article published in the Dentons Newsletter

Global lockdowns imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic hit the tourism sector one of the hardest. The arts and culture industry, a cornerstone for tourism, and well-rounded communities now face an existential crisis. Museums make up a 13 billion-dollar industry in the US alone, where 14 million Americans attend each year. The risk of losing museums will affect the intricate system of artists, tourists, residents, and families. Today, museums across the board struggle in the background. One-third of them might not make it through the pandemic; the rest may need to reinvent their business models to survive.

Over the last decade, museums evolved from academia and research to bring in more audiences through engagement and entertainment. This modified museum experience focuses on interaction with artifacts through reading, touching, listening, or reacting. This hands-on model also shifted the financial model to rely mostly on foot traffic and memberships. The result of this creates an intentional, high contact environment. The Smith Group, based on architectural design in the art space, points out the need for structural changes to stay relevant post-pandemic and among the newer generations.

Efforts to keep afloat during the pandemic show promising insights on how museums might evolve. Director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Tina Olsen, speaks candidly about midsize museums and gallery spaces sharing marketing strategies in ways never considered before. As the museums try to develop a plan for recovery, including sharing resources, rotating collections, and going digital, this short term crisis informs the industry of a more significant threat on whether or not museums will keep up in the digital world.

Traditional and dated forms of engagement used by many museum websites do not effectively harness the internet. If museums move beyond brick and mortar establishments, they will need to attract and engage younger audiences through more forward-thinking ideas. Museums often use social influencers like celebrities or political figures to market and attract visitors. However, a new form of marketing, known as niche marketing, can potentially lead museums to use pop culture to interact with the digital world. One example is from a recent phenomenon is Animal Crossing, the record-breaking video game from Nintendo Switch. The social simulation game sold over 13 million copies since its release and created a revolutionary community for users to build an attractive island and visit other users online. The fandom inspiring the Youtube subgenre “Island tours,” inspired New York congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to reach out to her following within the video game.

How might the arts and museums also utilize this digital venue? New York-based artist Nicole Shinn launched her art gallery housed within Animal Crossing and features the work of over 20 contributing artists. Museums are beginning to use this as a model for tailoring interactive digital experiences. Getty Museum recently created a Vincent Van Gogh Exhibition in the game to engage visitors over quarantine. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made its entire collection of more than 406,000 Open Access images available to visit or hang in your island home.

While these new ideas circulate the industry, museums will still need to figure out how to enhance their current financial model. Will they find ways to use the digital world to attract visitors to see their artifacts firsthand? COVID-19 made it imperative for businesses to look further into online engagement, but museums still have a clouded future ahead of them.


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