The future of going to an art or science museum after the coronavirus

Like so many institutions and businesses, Colorado’s 300-plus museums also face a vague and uncertain future when they reopen. However, like many individuals and businesses, these venues are finding new ways to connect in the now and plan for when things start up again.

“For us one of the real discoveries of the stay-at-home orders has been the relative ease with which we can deliver a range of content to our audience’s home devices, and the audience’s willingness to participate in online programming,” said Dean Sobel, founding director of the Clyfford Still Museum. “This has included both new live programs but also, I think, very good content we created several years ago that we had considered ‘archived,’ but we now see as highly relevant in this new world.”

Art, history, artifact and other museums of all sizes across the state have suffered, both from loss of ticket revenue and the money they make by hosting events and renting out space. Museums in Colorado have a total economic impact of $1.08 billion, and create over 16,000 jobs. Before the closures, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science saw around 3,300 visitors a day. Now, the only funds come from memberships, donations and whatever state money has been granted, a scenario mirrored by many other museums.

The institutions also have to look at how to keep the public engaged with them while under lock down. Officials from the DMNS said online traffic to its education page has increased about 17 fold to over 500 views per week. Teachers too are reaching out for virtual content to share with their students.

One way the Clyfford Still Museum has been keeping relevant is by relaunching many of its past initiatives, such as online publications, a 360-degree virtual walk-through tour of the museum and the online collection featuring more than 2,500 artworks.

“In addition to the live and recorded virtual programs, our education team continues to post at-home activities for families on our blog and they create videos with additional educational content including writing activities and information about Still’s works,” said Sanya Andersen-Vie, the director of marketing and communications at the Clyfford Still Museum, adding the staff is also working with teachers to provide virtual material the educators can use. “The content has been exciting to see and share. For example, we had someone send a Still painting recreated in LEGO blocks.”

It wasn’t too long ago around 400,000 people flocked to the Denver Museum of Art to see the celebrated “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature” exhibit, which closed right around the time the coronavirus started making noise in February. Tickets were timed but still hundreds waited in line to fill the gallery space. When the stay-at-home order lifts and museums finally open to the public again, it’s doubtful something like that popular exhibit can happen, at least not in the same way and not for a long time.

“A big question we have to ask is how do we acknowledge the fears and recreate the experiences so people feel safe and know we are keeping their health and safety in mind without the constant reminder of the new reality,” said Jessica Brunecky, president of Colorado-Wyoming Association of Museums. But, she added, “If we have to limit how many people are coming into the space and doors through lines or timed tickets, at what point is that profitable and what point is [the show and/or museum] losing money?”

But it’s not just the big shows that may change. Already museums are looking into new, more permanent ways to get their content, expertise and education to the public. So far, online programming, digital galleries and virtual classes and seminars appear to the new normal.

“We already do a lot of work outside of our museum walls and directly in the community, but this moment forced us to imagine new ways to connect with people without sharing the same spaces,” said Dawn DiPrince, chief operating officer at History Colorado, the leading state history museum in Denver. “We have staff across the state and we quickly leaned on our tools for tele-collaboration.”

To do this, the state-funded History Colorado created new online channels for youth and adult education, started a weekly digest and fast-tracked episodes of its podcasts. On the staff side, it redeployed guest services staff to support other departments, mobilized the philanthropy department in response to the federal CARES Act, and converted the Stephen H. Hart Research Center and Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation into remote operations so it could still respond to research questions. The museum also launched History in the Making, a comprehensive statewide collecting initiative in partnership with dozens of schools, communities, and more than 40 newsrooms around the state. The museum is asking Coloradans to share their pandemic experience for future generations to understand.

“We pivoted from our powerful work and goals for human-to-human engagement into a realm of human-to-digital-human engagement,” DiPrince said. “In a few short days, our teams pulled together and created what we like to call ‘museum magic.’”

But History Colorado isn’t just helping its Denver museum and all the branches it manages. Like so many public-oriented businesses, it’s reaching out to the community, too. One way is by having the State Historical Fund team working remotely to keep up with the 282 active grants, which total around $24 million, something that’s helped the group distribute more than $650,000 in grant dollars to community projects across the state. At the El Pueblo History Museum in Pueblo, supplies were collected for community elders. The Fort Garland Museum in San Luis Valley is acting as a center for college students who need digital connection to attend online classes. The curatorial and archaeology teams donated masks and gloves for the medical effort. In turn, the organization is also exploring ways to transform its Hands-On History program into emergency child care sites in different parts of the state.

“In these weeks of uncertainty we have focused on three important elements, serving families with kids at home, meeting our mission of Colorado’s history and serving the people of Colorado,” DiPrince said. “We believe our mission and our museums are vital elements to a functioning society as our work builds an understanding of history that fosters a better present and a stronger future, and also enables people to make meaningful connections between their lives and the larger world.”

For some museums like the Colorado Railroad Museum, the stay-at-home order has brought so many to its virtual doors that perhaps more people will be coming to its real site once it reopens.

“People who are stuck at home have been contacting us with research questions and the like, model railroaders are working on projects and they need diagrams and paint color matching help from our Richardson Library archives, and families are going through ‘old stuff’ and finding items that they think we might be interested in adding to the Museum’s collection,” said Paul Hammond, the executive director at the Colorado Railroad Museum. “We have been pleasantly surprised to find a lot of support and interest out there.”

This open-air museum has also added a cache of online resources including digital train tours, railroad menu and recipe ideas, and weekly story time and craft episodes to help engage the younger train lovers. The hope, said Hammond, is that since the Railroad Museum is outdoors, it won’t be too hard to welcome back guests with plenty of safety precautions.

“In some ways we may have an easier time in terms of meeting physical distancing requirements, but parts of what we do are not that simple,” he said. “We have exhibit galleries and a small viewing space for the model railroad in our main depot building, and these provide some real challenges in terms of distancing requirements. And a signature activity of ours, train rides, is also something that we’re giving a lot of thought to.”

Overall, when the stay-at-home order lifts and museums are able to reopen, they won’t operate the same as they did before the pandemic. At least, not for a while. But, many museum personal believe that, with time, things will get closer to what we remember as normal, as long as we support the institutions though memberships, donations, shopping in the museum stores and keeping interested by visiting online and, when the time is right, coming back to the physical spaces.

“While it’s probably never been more difficult to predict the future, one thing is certain, when the people of Colorado decide that it’s time to return to our museums, we will welcome them with a bursting appreciation for the joy of civic activities and human connection,” History Colorado’s DiPrince said. “Of course, our museums’ re-openings will center the care and safety of our communities first, but, with or without open museum doors, we will continue to maintain our relationships and connections with the people we serve.”

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