Caring for the vulnerable in a time of crisis. – American Alliance of Museums


The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is one of 28 public gardens participating in the Urban Agriculture Resilience Program, created by the US Botanic Garden and American Public Gardens Association to sustain urban agriculture and community food growing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

“The peoples of the earth are one family.”

— Ruth Fulton Benedict, American anthropologist and folklorist

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

The year 2020 was terrible for pretty much everyone, but certain groups have been especially vulnerable to the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color fell ill and died at a far greater rate than their white counterparts and suffered disproportionate economic damage from layoffs and business closures. People over the age of 55 are at heightened risk for serious outcomes, both from the disease and from the negative consequences of social isolation, as family and friends seek to protect them by staying away. Domestic violence has increased during this crisis, and the pandemic makes it more difficult for people suffering from abuse to seek help. People with disabilities face new barriers to accessing critical care and medical supplies. Families experiencing food insecurity have been cut off from already fragile pipelines of support, and school closures mean students do not receive subsidized meals (or dental care). The national pivot to online learning for K-12 students has exposed the vulnerabilities of families without access to child care, connected devices, and reliable high-speed Internet.

Hopefully, the US will learn from these failures and rebuild our systems in forms that are more equitable and resilient. Meanwhile, it’s incumbent on all sectors—government, private, and nonprofit—to create an ad hoc safety net for people falling through the gaping cracks in our current systems of care.

The Challenge

Many of the core functions of American society (e.g., education, health care, safety services) barely work for marginalized peoples at the best of times. To maximize private profit and minimize government costs, our nation tends to offload the costs of systems onto vulnerable communities, depending on the nonprofit sector or inadequate public infrastructure to meet essential needs. Health insurance is tied to employment, school takes the place of a public system of child care, and food pantries help support people who are not paid a living wage. Government relief often prioritizes screening out the unworthy or ineligible rather than maximizing reach to people in need. The pandemic has exposed the fundamental weakness of this patchwork approach.

The current crisis has also revealed vulnerabilities in what might appear to be more robust, integrated approaches to care. For example, schools are effectively the primary social service agencies for children, delivering free and reduced meal programs that provide lunches to nearly 30 million children each day and providing access to health and wellness resources. Pre-pandemic, this was an effective and efficient way to reach children in need. But tight linkages mean that one disruption (such as closure of schools) has disastrous ripple effects.

If there is any upside to the past year, it may be that the pandemic has demonstrated how leaving the most vulnerable of society exposed eventually hurts everyone, even those who are usually buffered from harm. Viruses and financial collapse can’t be redlined, and left unchecked, they will eventually undermine the safety and security of all. If only out of self-interest, America may shift, at last, from trying to contain and ignore the weaknesses of our systems to addressing their fundamental flaws.

How Museums Are Responding

Inward Action

Many museum staff and volunteers belong to high-risk or vulnerable populations. Furloughs, layoffs, and salary freezes are particularly hard on staff working in low-wage jobs and impose additional financial stress on the many entry-level museum professionals still paying off student debt.

Eighty percent of those who have died from COVID-19 in the US have been over the age of 65. Museum volunteers typically skew older than staff and more often fall into the high-risk category based on age. In light of these facts, museums may well ask volunteers to stay away for now, even those eager to return to work. While this distancing may reduce the chance of exposure to COVID-19, it can also increase social isolation, which poses a risk to mental and physical health as well.

As they plan their pandemic response, museums should give particular attention to protecting vulnerable staff and volunteers. For example:

Outward Action

By thinking broadly and creatively, museums can deploy their resources to serve vulnerable populations. This may be as straightforward as offering free admission to health care workers or taking traditional museum programs online to make them accessible to people who are unable to get to the museum. Other examples may involve pushing the boundaries of traditional practice. For example, museums can:

Find Out More

This year’s edition of TrendsWatch ( explores this issue in-depth, offers additional examples of how museums are responding, and provides a framework to guide museum decision-making on how to best support staff and communities in this time of crisis.

“‘Ohana’ means family. ‘Family’ means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

— Lilo & Stitch

Universal Design: A Tool for Equity

Andrew Plumley, Director of Inclusion, American Alliance of Museums

Every museum has a mission, vision, and set of values—often codified in writing. Every museum, given the nuance and context of their institutional history, board members, leadership, staff, geographical location, and communities they serve, also has an unwritten organizational culture. That organizational culture dictates how decisions are made, who is at the table to make them, and what populations and demographics are priorities in museum decision-making.

For most museums, that culture results in a planning process that focuses on meeting the needs of 70 or 80 percent of its stakeholders. The other 20 or 30 percent, often belonging to marginalized communities, are only addressed through “special” initiatives like fellowships or specific community engagement, resulting in one-off solutions with minimal lasting impact.

What if this approach to planning was flipped on its head by prioritizing marginalized and not predominate audiences?

This is where the concept of universal design comes into play. You may already be aware of universal design in the context of the disability rights movement. One of the most classic examples is the pedestrian curb cut, designed for people in wheelchairs who had limited or no access to city sidewalks. While this adaptation was designed for those with the least access in terms of mobility, it turned out that curb cuts are good for everyone, including people with bicycles, strollers, and roller suitcases.

Universal design can be applied more broadly to planning as well by prompting museums to ask, “How could we design for the 20 percent of the population who we might most marginalize, who may currently have the least access to our services?” Guided by questions like this, museums will often find themselves arriving at solutions that, like curb cuts, are better for everyone.

But to implement universal design, museum decision-makers need to explicitly identify what groups are most marginalized in their museums and communities. Who is discouraged from using the museum because of physical, technological, or cultural barriers? What designs—architectural, programmatic, or procedural—would eliminate those barriers? And in the spirit of “nothing about us without us” (another precept of disability rights), who should be at the table to help inform these solutions? This approach would embed diversity, equity, access, and inclusion into museum programs, exhibitions, and organizational culture. And it would make museums universally a better experience for all.


Policies to Support Workers During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” National Partnership for Women and Families, National Employment Law Project

Working Remotely During COVID-19: Your Mental Health and Well-being,” American Psychiatric Association

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