Storytelling with Data during COVID-19

By Emily McDonald and Younger Oliver

Advocacy on behalf of our cultural institutions is as crucial now as ever. The COVID-19 crisis has cast a shadow of deep uncertainty on all areas of American life, and how far these social and economic impacts may reach is still very much unknown. Over the past six months, we have been working to better understand the challenges humanities organizations are facing and how they are serving their communities in the face of crisis. We’ve found our peers are not only providing informative programming, but also extending their missions to serve their communities in creative ways. To fully capture the impact of this work, we have been partnering with humanities organizations across the country, leveraging the data collection resources we’ve developed at NHA, to highlight how humanities organizations serve as anchors in their communities during times of crisis.

At the start of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak, we broadly surveyed the humanities community—humanities departments, humanities institutes, jurisdictional humanities councils, private and public archives, libraries, and museums—to gauge financial challenges, adaptation of current or ongoing programming, and pivots to immediate needs of their communities. We heard from 314 organizations who have expanded digital access to their materials for parents and educators, educated their local representatives about past pandemics to inform current responses, and helped students make sense of their experiences. We also found inspiring examples of humanities organizations moving well beyond their direct humanities work to fill gaps in their communities: a museum deployed their existing outreach to consistently check on their volunteer base, most of whom are older adults; a community college humanities institute supported their campus’ effort to serve as a testing site for their state; a theatre program used their materials to make masks for first responders; and a linguistics department pivoted their existing student outreach to establish a mutual aid group, to name only a few. 

Since this initial COVID-19 survey, we have partnered with individual organizations to document their impact amidst the pandemic. At the Wayne State Humanities Clinic, they matched 23 graduate student interns with Detroit nonprofits and businesses to help them navigate COVID-19. We surveyed the interns and found that despite the virtual internship format, they still gained valuable career preparation skills and a stronger connection to their community. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi is hosting virtual dialogues between community members and scholars. Initial event surveys demonstrated how the museum is not only providing interesting programming, but also creating ways for meaningful and nuanced dialogues to happen despite physical distancing. 

These data can be a powerful tool for making the case to policymakers and funders that the humanities are a public good and are very much needed in a time of crisis. But we also know that data collection can be challenging, especially for small organizations and overtaxed faculty.  That’s why we are always looking for opportunities to support the humanities community in this process. We have developed an Impact Survey Toolkit, and, no matter how you are serving your community during the pandemic, we can help you brainstorm data collection methods and how to use the data to share the impact of your work. Please reach out to us if we can support your efforts. 

If you would like to collect data on a program or initiative at a higher education institution, please contact our research associate, Younger Oliver: [email protected]

If your program or initiative is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities or is situated outside of higher education, please contact our manager of community research, Emily McDonald: [email protected].


Photo credit

Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of Wayne State University

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COVID-19 Documenting Impact