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August 27, 2020

ICOM VoicesSurveying and Addressing COVID-19’s Impact on Museums in Singapore

Alvin Tan Tze Ee

Deputy Chief Executive (Policy & Community), National Heritage Board of Singapore

Keywords: COVID-19; Museums; Survey; Digital; Capability development.

Despite being the smallest country in Southeast Asia in terms of land area, Singapore has a rich, diverse and thriving museum landscape comprising public and private museums that showcase collections pertaining to the arts, culture and community, healthcare, national history, defense, science and technology.

Sixty of these museums have banded together, under the stewardship of the National Heritage Board (NHB), to form the Museum Roundtable, a network of museums united under the twin goals of fostering a museum-going culture amongst Singaporeans and positioning museums as cultural destinations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated across the world, NHB issued a set of operational guidelines on 23 March 2020 outlining the precautionary measures that museum stakeholders had to comply with. On 3 April 2020, in response to the Singapore government’s implementation of stay-home orders and a stricter set of safe distancing measures, all museums in Singapore closed their doors to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Surveying COVID-19 impact

During the period of museum closures, NHB conducted a survey to assess the impact of COVID-19 on museums in Singapore, determine their readiness to re-open, and seek feedback on their digital needs and interests. The survey, which was conducted from April to May 2020, attracted responses from 43 Museum Roundtable members.

Based on the survey findings, close to 75% of museums in Singapore indicated that they suffered a severe drop in visitor numbers and revenue. The remaining 25% comprised museums that were already closed, prior to COVID-19, for redevelopment/renovation works. Many survey respondents also indicated that they had to cope with budget cuts as well as the postponement and/or cancellation of exhibitions and programmes.

Survey results showing the impact of COVID-19 on daily visitorship figures for Museum Roundtable members

Fortunately, close to 90% of respondents indicated that they did not have to lay off their staff although 14% indicated that they had to redeploy their staff to other areas of work such as producing digital content, conducting research, reviewing museum operations, etc.   

Assessing reopening readiness

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to indicate their readiness to implement the safe management measures listed in NHB’s operational guidance when they re-open. Close to 75% of respondents indicated that they would be able to conduct temperature screening; disinfect and clean premises and frequently touched surfaces; provide hand sanitisers in key locations; display signage within their premises; collect travel and health declarations from visitors; and implement visitor registration and contact-tracing measures.

Safe distancing signage at the National Gallery Singapore

In addition, more than 60% of respondents indicated that they would be able to enforce the 1-metre spacing guideline between museum visitors; monitor and ensure that groups of more than 10 people are quickly dispersed; be ready to cancel and/or defer all events involving more than 10 people at any one time; and ensure that their museums do not have more than one person per 16 square meters of usable space.

Going digital

In terms of digital needs, more than 58% of respondents shared that they are interested in the development of online exhibitions, virtual tours, and online learning programmes. They are also keen to feature their collections online and use hashtags to attract digital eyeballs and increase online visibility. However, the main challenges cited by respondents include the lack of funding and specialised skillsets, as well as human resource limitations to develop and implement these digital projects.

In the area of skills development, digital engagement was ranked the top priority for respondents. This is unsurprising considering the ongoing efforts made by Museum Roundtable members to develop and launch digital offerings, such as virtual exhibitions and tours, online workshops, educational resources etc., in order to stay connected with their audiences and maintain top-of-mind brand awareness.

Image of ‘An Old New World: Digital Edition’ © National Museum of Singapore

Ongoing follow-up actions

In response to the survey findings, NHB, with the support of its Ministry, launched two support schemes to help small, privately run museums cope with the effects of the pandemic. The Digital Project Grant offers funding support of 50% to 100% of the total costs incurred when developing digital content and programmes for eligible museums, while the Capability Development Scheme for the Arts encourages private museums to develop digital skills by providing course subsidies (up to 90% of programme fees) and offering absentee payroll funding to defray manpower costs incurred when staff are sent for training.

To further support the Museum Roundtable, NHB has been featuring members’ digital initiatives on its I Love Museums Facebook page, an online platform for sharing best practices from Singapore’s museum sector. NHB also spearheaded online campaigns such as #CultureCarriesOn and #DoseOfCulture, and organised a digital edition of International Museum Day 2020.

Finally, NHB conducted online sharing sessions for Museum Roundtable members to explain and address queries on the above mentioned operational guidance and support schemes. NHB also organised six online training sessions for members from June 2020 to July 2020 and will continue to offer more of such programmes until the end of the year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented changes that forced museums worldwide to re-consider their models of operation and pivot to the digital realm to remain connected with their audiences. Even as new challenges continue to unfold, it is the support and spirit of solidarity from networks and associations such as ICOM, Singapore’s Museum Roundtable, and others that will enable museums everywhere to pandemic-proof their museums, and weather the COVID-19 storm together.    

References and resources

For more information about the Museum Roundtable:

For more information about NHB’s COVID-19 operational guidance:

For more information about the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s Arts and Cultural Resilience Package:

I Love Museums’ Facebook page: https:///



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