Preparing for Omicron – 5 Tips for Museums

Dr Britt Romstad, Head of Visitor Experience, ACMI, Melbourne

Front-footing issues to to keep staff, volunteers and visitors safe during Omicron should be a top of mind for any Covid workgroup. Photographed by Phoebe Powell, supplied by ACMI.

As both the Head of Visitor Experience and the Chair of the Emergency Planning and Business Continuity Committee at ACMI – Australia’s museum of screen culture – I have been immersed in COVID planning and response for almost two years. Melbournians endured nearly 9 months of lockdowns across 2020-21, and just as we were anticipating a summer enjoying freedom, travel and other human beings, Omicron hit. The impact across December and January – when Omicron reached its peak – was immediate and chaotic.

Here are 5 tips for surviving the choppy waters of this COVID-19 variant within a museum environment.

1. Look after your frontline staff

As the Head of Visitor Experience, this will always be my number one tip. Most museums (and workplaces) in Melbourne have many employees who have been – at least partially – working from home since the pandemic began. Visitor facing (and delivery/operational) staff, however, don’t have this luxury. Furthermore, they are most often the ones who are responsible for enforcing whatever COVID restrictions are currently in play. During the current Omicron wave, for my team that has meant ensuring everyone 18+ is fully vaccinated and checked-in before entering the museum, and that everyone 8 years and over is wearing a fitted mask. Most of these visitor interactions are fine, but some are not. Managing this compliance piece, while staying positive, friendly and open to our visitors is hard and can be cumulatively wearying for the Visitor Experience teams in museums and galleries. Acknowledge this and thank them for their work.

2. Focus on the physical and mental health of your teams

Moving from a suppression strategy to ‘living with COVID-19′ has been a huge community-wide psychological shift for all of us. For this shift to coincide with the rise of Omicron has been an emotional rollercoaster and taken many people into some dark places. With Omicron running rampant, it is not uncommon or unreasonable for staff members to feel anxious both about contracting COVID-19 and/or passing it on to someone more vulnerable in their circle. Make sure you’re doing all the right things in terms of transmission prevention (for Omicron, that means N95 masks are best – so get a supply of these for your public–facing teams now). Stock up on Rapid Antigen Tests – aside from detecting COVID-19, these can really help with the management of anxiety. Both N95 masks and RATs have been in short supply in Australia this summer – learn from our experience and get your supplies organised in advance.

Once your solid prevention plan is in place, focus on the mental health and wellbeing of your team members. At ACMI we have an employee assistance program for staff members and their family members which has been an invaluable resource throughout the pandemic.

3. Don’t panic when your visitation drops

Just as we were anticipating the full release of almost two years of pent-up demand for our museum, Covid-19 infection rates jumped and our attendances dropped. Out of a hard lockdown environment, mobility for Melbournians in December and January plummeted to levels not seen since the last mandated lockdown. In light of Omicron, people are choosing outdoor entertainment over indoor venues, and they are keeping away from the city and large groups of other people. As a result, museums and galleries are doing it tough, so don’t be surprised if your attendance targets suffer too. Government and tourism advice is that visitors will return – along with consumer confidence – it will just take longer than previously thought before Omicron.

4. Agree on your priorities

Rostering and Omicron have not been friends. Over December and January, our small team of Visitor Experience Supervisors spent hours each day trying to fill the roster as staff members cancelled shifts in order to get tested, await results or ride out an infection. The VX team are a sociable bunch – and it was Christmas – there were a lot of close contacts. As the impact of this increased, we were conscious of how close we were at any given moment to an outbreak that could result in the need to shut the museum. At this point we understood that we needed agreement on what our programming priorities were in case we needed to make some tough choices at short notice.

For ACMI, as we approached the final weeks of our Melbourne Winter Masterpiece exhibition, Disney: The Magic of Animation – which had been plagued by closures and lockdowns across 2021 – we needed to ensure we were able to deliver this exhibition and keep the gallery open every day. By streamlining other parts of our programming (reducing duplicate sessions, cancelling those impacted by poor advance sales), we planned to be able to operate on reduced numbers of staff and put our resources in the agreed place.

5. Tell people what you’re doing to keep them safe

This goes for staff and visitors alike. Support your visitors with clear information on your website that tells them what your museum is doing to keep them safe during their visit and what will be required of them when they are onsite. ACMI’s guidelines can be read here. In Victoria, museums must also publish their full COVIDSafe Plans on their websites – here’s our plan. Regardless, make sure your information is up-to-date and that it reflects your museum’s response to the current restrictions. Over the summer, these restrictions changed a number of times and with limited or no notice, so it’s important that within your museum you have a designated go-to person who will keep the guidelines and plans up-to-date and communicate these to the relevant people internally.

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