Museums during the pandemic

What will happen a month from now? There was a time not so long ago when work had a degree of predictability and we might know the answer to that question. While the CMA and our provincial and territorial partners continue to plan for the future, we are also working to respond and react effectively to the latest issues arising in the best way possible in support of our membership and more broadly, all museums across Canada.

Like many of you, we have also shifted our operations to home-based offices but we are still finding ways to be nimble and respond to shifts in public policy, supporting museums through these times by bringing them information and resources on closures, re-openings and adapting to our shared future. Many of these items are publicly available via links on the CMA’s website, but be sure to check out the resources provided by the museums association for your area for additional information as well. Many are being developed swiftly by our colleagues in response to re-opening announcements in order to be as helpful as possible.

Despite a cautiously optimistic approach that contemplated moving the CMA 2020 National Conference in Montreal to the fall, the CMA and its Board of Directors made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel the event for 2020. We know we are not the only association in this position so as our collective conference plans change, we are also sharing, testing and in many cases finding success with digital knowledge sharing, as well as in partnering and collaborating, and we hope you will and are taking part.


Many museums associations across the country are conducting surveys to collect data related to the pandemic. We encourage you to respond to these surveys as they roll out. This data is an essential part of generating support for sector.

The situation changes frequently and we are still experiencing the pandemic. As a result, it’s not possible to fully quantify the impact on museums now and in the future. That being said, as museums associations continue collecting data from members we wanted to give you a sense of the information received so far. These figures are just a snapshot of the effects of COVID-19 on museums in Canada and assist the advocacy and development work  we are all doing.

Lost revenues

Across surveys, Canadian museums have already reported millions in lost revenues due to COVID-19 closures. In Quebec alone, almost $7 million has been lost through combination of lost ticket sales and other operational revenues. Should closures continue in Quebec to the end of June, an additional $12 million in losses is expected, nearly totalling $20 million in losses over three months.

In the Yukon Territories, even by early April, museums had already reported nearly 850 cancelled or postponed activities and $128K in lost revenues. Saskatchewan saw approximately 545 public and school programs cancelled and revenue reductions at an average of 50% with some museums reporting a 100% loss in revenues.

Respondents to the survey conducted by the Alberta Museums Association indicated losses totalling more than $460K by mid-April. In New Brunswick, over 155 events and fundraisers were cancelled. Meanwhile, revenue in Ontario was down by an estimated 64% for the month of April, with 63% of museums indicating that they would lose all of their revenue for the month.

Manitoba museums estimated $750K in lost revenues for a similar time period. They also surveyed for lost volunteer hours and there were 7K hours lost on that front. In Prince Edward Island (PEI) where many museums operate only in summer months, season extensions are being considered, but may not be possible as volunteers are less available when school is in session in the fall.


A primary topic for many of the surveys related to human resource challenges. Layoffs were reported across the country, with more anticipated should closures continue. In Saskatchewan, it was estimated that a total of 140 positions could be lost. Some institutions additionally reported that laying off staff was the only way that they would be able to remain operational beyond the very short term.

Summer hiring, especially of students, was also of concern with many museums unsure about how to proceed with student placements and volunteers, or if they would even be able to. 68% of respondents in Ontario reported delays or cancellations with respect to summer jobs or seasonal staff.

Some museums in Nova Scotia reported that they would not open for the summer even if permitted, but have elected to instead take an opportunity to focus on internal projects while respecting physical distancing guidelines, this includes student hiring.

Digital activities

Some surveys also addressed needs related to an increase in museum digital activities. The need for support for digital development was highlighted by some respondents, with 80% of museums in New Brunswick indicating that they had increased their social media presence since the closures began.

Digital toolkits were one of the top three items flagged by survey respondents in Ontario as being needed, with 52% already having an existing digital strategy, with another 13% in the process of developing one. Meanwhile, rural museums responding to the same question reported lower rates of digital strategy development at 39%.

In Saskatchewan, this Spring has seen a 21% increase in the number of museums who have or are working on a digital strategy, from 28% to 49%. Meanwhile in PEI, a lack of knowledge on digital strategy has prevented many museums from developing new public programming during the pandemic.

Museums at home, the CMA’s list of virtual museum offerings showcases over 50 virtual exhibits, many of which were developed as a response to the pandemic.

Please note that this article has made use of survey data relating to the first month or so of the pandemic so that readers may have a sense of the baseline of the pandemic’s early effect on museums. As the situation unfolds, results and the impact of the situation will continue to change. We hope to bring you more updates in the coming months as data becomes available.