Industry Insights: COVID-19 & Public Engagement

Chanel Turner

I spoke to some key figures in the public engagement sector to discuss their dynamic sector. COVID-19 has changed the landscape for engagement, for technology, public spaces, and interaction… but it won’t stop this inspirational sector from coming back better than ever.

Remember growing up, the feeling you got as you walked into the main foyer of a Museum. The overwhelming feeling of anticipation, the anxious energy to find what information was before you, and the echoing noises of kids laughing, screaming, and the loud footsteps across shiny, well-kept floors. That feeling was being overwhelmed but the prospect of culture. It was education becoming a physical experience, a chance to in that moment, be in control of how you absorbed your education.

Even as an adult, that feeling of excitement for new exhibits, new art galleries, visitor centres and attractions, whatever it might be. It’s inspiring, and it’s a key part of engaging anyone and everyone in hugely varied topics the world over.

Cultural institutions like Museums, Visitor Attractions and Science Centres are a key vertebra of our society’s backbone. They offer a ticket to go back in time, a ticket to the outer reaches of our Galaxy, a ticket to potent education, and a ticket to truly memorable informative experiences. They are a tourist destination, a school trip, a weekend activity, they are diverse, dynamic, and always a source of entertainment. It won’t be a surprise to you that this key vertebra has suffered immensely through the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has changed so much for us all, but especially for institutions that rely on housing people.

[Photo courtesy of ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre]

At Pufferfish, we take great pride in having worked with public engagement venues all over the globe. It’s a sector that allows us to do what we do best – change the way information is used, viewed and understood. The design process for an exhibition is rigorous, its customer experience focussed, it is centred around the story they want to tell, and the feeling, the reaction they want to stimulate. It’s emotive, creative and truly people focussed. It’s a sector we feel needs to be protected at all costs.

Join us as we talk to some key professionals in the public engagement sector. People who believe in their sector, and who believe in the power cultural institutions have in transforming the minds of society. We wanted to get some fresh perspectives on how they see their industry through COVID, and what it might mean for it moving forward.

Is there a ‘new normal’ for this varied industry?

Life Science Centre: Toni Hamill

Life Science Centre in Newcastle is a Visitor Attraction appealing to audiences all over the United Kingdom. With a dedication to transforming how space, science and education is encouraged for all ages, it’s a place of discovery, entertainment, exploration, live shows, and more.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Life have actively engaged their audiences through digital and remote engagement. With school activities for children and fun facts about science on social media, and consistently remaining in the digital realm – they have managed to shift the attention from their usually interactive environments in venue. We spoke to their Senior Education Officer, Toni Hamill about the major changes they have felt since lockdown:

“It’s certainly a different world for science centres at the moment. We’ve reopened but with a limited offer, and we’ve flipped our usually hands-on message on its head, now we have to ask visitors not to touch. Very strange. The current government legislation also does not allow us to hold live indoor performances, so no Theatre, Planetarium or PufferSphere® shows for the meantime.” See more on Life, here.

Deutsches Museum: Yvonne Schaefer

The Deutsches Museum is a place of huge innovation. A Museum dedicated to technology, to media engagement, and to ensuring they always stay ahead of the curve. We spoke to their Electronics Manager, Yvonne Schaefer about how the venue has had to adapt their engagement techniques, and also where she sees the future of this cultural sector:

“Our greatest challenge in the museum was to ensure that the contact between our visitors and the media stations complied with the new hygiene guidelines. Interactive media stations require input from visitors, and that causes a potential transmission path. In the case of our touch screens, it was only a moderate challenge because due to their flat surface they are easy and fast to clean. We faced major problems with other uneven surfaces however, such as handsets and VR glasses; because cleaning takes more time and cannot be done as frequently. Because of this, these types of stations are closed temporarily...

Where do I see the future for our sector? Media is a rapidly changing environment. New electronic innovations still require supervision by staff (VR installations for instance) and that is difficult to reconcile in a museum. It’s also common that new innovations don’t always run reliably and are not capable of continuous operation. As a technology museum, we want to keep up with all the latest developments, and aim to enable those experiences for our visitors as soon as we can safely do so. I think media will be more frequently used in museums in the future, but using media in a museum shouldn’t be considered because media is simply media. It should be used because it implies the possibility of showing new dimensions of content, which was simply not possible before.” See more on Deutsches Museum, here.

Lapworth Museum of Geology: Jon Clatworthy

Lapworth Museum of Geology is a beloved science museum in the heart of the University of Birmingham’s campus. Enabling visitors to explore life over the past 3.5 billion years, Lapworth has been a reputable venue for science engagement, science communications, and educational interaction for years. Following their huge redevelopment in 2016, the museum was even shortlisted for the world's biggest museum prize, Museum of the Year 2017. So, how does such an engaging museum adapt to a pandemic like COVID-19? We spoke with the museum Director, Jon Clatworthy, and got his point of view on their biggest hurdles to date as they approach re-opening in September, and what’s to come for the sector long term:

“The biggest change for us so far, bearing in mind we are still not open, has been planning for how we can control visitor numbers at all times. We have had to change how we ticket, how we welcome visitors, and we have had to remove any walk-in visitors. Which for us is a tough reality, as a lot of our foot traffic is from people enjoying the space for its peaceful, comfortable curation. It’s a space for science exploration yes, but it’s also a place of wellbeing and enjoyment; so, ticketing and restricting visitors will be the hardest change when we do open again...

We have also had to re-design the whole visitor experience. It’s constrained now, and can’t be as interactive as it was - so we are having to modify tours, and find a combination of safety / hygiene and enjoyable engagement. A balance of which can’t take away from the overall experience, and that’s major...

A real positive takeaway from this pandemic has been how the industry has come together, and the inspiring level of innovation throughout the sector. Even with the introduction of professionals working from home, not in venue at all, they have still managed to innovate – it’s been great to see. And I do think that in the future, even when our ‘new normal’ feels a little bit more like pre-COVID life, those innovations will stay in place; and that approach to innovating and problem solving will remain. Which is great for the industry!” See more on Lapworth Museum of Geology, here.

ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre: Tania Johnston

The ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre is part of a dynamic intergovernmental group, ESO – The European Southern Observatory – and is one of Germany’s newest science centres, with great support throughout the country. Having opened in 2018, ESO and ESO Supernova have built an exceptional reputation for offering guided tours from Astronomers and Engineers, Planetarium shows, concerts, public talks and educational workshops. As you can imagine, with such a commitment to tactile learning, to group events, and indoor entertainment; COVID-19 has shifted the foundations of how ESO run and manage their venue. I spoke with Tania Johnston, Head of ESO Supernova, and got her insights on the sector through COVID, and beyond:

“The biggest challenge for us was closing the doors for 5 months, and we shut before a lot of others did. So, having to inform visitors was a real challenge. But since opening again early August, we have seen positive support and strong numbers coming through the exhibition. The biggest changes have been controlling visitor numbers at all times, having to cancel all our Planetarium shows – although those will re-open under restricted measures in September – and then not being able to offer our usually fully booked guided tours.

We have also had to rethink engagement, and touch engaged technology within the venue. Many of our touch screens are turned off currently, and have a QR code to access the information normally displayed. We have also had to bring in timed sessions, and we are always thinking about hygiene and cleanliness. But this new COVID-wary approach has allowed us to think about new ways to engage visitors, and it’s been amazing to see the community come together and support one another. There have been regular webinars through ICOM, Ecsite and more; and the support throughout the industry has been really great to see...

Will this ‘new normal’ last forever? No, but, in my opinion, probably until a vaccine is available. The remainder of 2020 will be under these same measures for us, and we can only hope 2021 looks different – and that visitors start to get more confident in visiting venues like ours. We are all planning for business survival, but how people feel coming to public places with their friends, family and teachers, is also something to be mindful of. We’re also already planning what our new exhibit could look like in the future, to consider this ‘new normal’ but also continue to push the boundaries of technology and storytelling in the public engagement space.” See more on ESO, here.

With such passion and such power behind this sector, we hope it comes out of COVID stronger than ever. But with the minds of these professionals crafting how their industry not just survives post-COVID, but thrives; we think there are better things to come for cultural institutions globally.

Thank you to everyone who was a part of this piece, and we hope to see you all walking the floors of an exhibit sometime soon!

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