Outdoors & Virtual: How The Pandemic Changed Vermont's Museums
At the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, kids send balls rolling down clanging machines with bells, lifts and weighted slides. They create 6-foot bubbles and experiment with paddles that show different light under shadows.
At the Montshire, science is a tactile experience. The museum is full of interactive elements that became suddenly unsafe as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
In March of 2020, the Montshire, like nearly all museums, closed their doors. Four months later in July, the Montshire was able to reopen entirely outside. The museum moved their well-known bubble exhibit outdoors, said Jennifer Rickards, the museum’s executive director.
“It was essentially opening a brand new museum within a matter of weeks, so that we would be ready to welcome the public back and to do so in a safe way,” she said.
Even though the Montshire is now fully open and back indoors, Rickards said that some of the changes ended up being beneficial. They altered programming, including their virtual teaching programs, which, she said, actually strengthened their connection with the community.
“People in our communities do value the role that the Montshire plays, and we really value — and perhaps have a whole new appreciation for — the community of learners that we have here at the Montshire,” Rickards said.
The pandemic shutdowns were a financial hardship for many museums, but they also provided an opportunity for these institutions to rethink their roles as places of education and revolutionized how they use outdoor and virtual spaces. Now, as the pandemic eases, the question is what, if anything, will Vermont’s museums keep?
Taking exhibits outside
Like the Montshire, many Vermont museums took advantage of virtual offerings and outdoor spaces.
Dan Yeager, the executive director of the trade group the New England Museum Association, said that Vermont was able to utilize outdoor spaces more than museums in other neighboring states.
“In Vermont last year, even in the early part of the spring, once the immediate shock of the pandemic was sort of coming clear, Vermont was already taking advantage of its outdoor spaces,” Yeager said.
For the Nature Museum in Grafton, the transition outside was relatively easy. Before the pandemic, most of the exhibits were located outdoors. They closed their building, but their outdoor exhibits attracted more visitors than ever, according to president Laurie Danforth.
She said during lockdown, people were looking for ways to get off their screens.
“I think we were just grateful people discovered how good it can be to be outdoors no matter where they were,” Danforth said.
‘No visitors, is it still a museum?’
Other museums added new virtual components. And while they allowed some museums to remain in operation and serve the public, they couldn’t replace everything museums do.
The Maritime Museum in Vergennes is a place where campers can build kayaks, museum staff restore boats and museum-goers can learn about a variety of topics surrounding the lake.
Susan Evans McClure, the museum director, said that without in-person visitors, museums have had to rethink what it means to be a museum.
“It’s a little bit of 'If a tree falls in a forest...' If a museum has no visitors, is it still a museum?” McClure said.
And not all museums were able to pivot their operations or take advantage of outdoor spaces.
The Vermont History Museum in Montpelier is a maze of rooms and hallways that time travel through the past, with costumes, a wireless radio device to tap out Morse code and chalkboards. The museum closed its doors due to the pandemic and only offered virtual programs.
Victoria Hughes, the museum and education manager, said that physical space was so essential to how they operate. While they could go virtual, those offerings didn’t replace certain meaningful elements of their in-person exhibitions. They’re still grappling with how to balance the increased accessibility that comes with virtual programs with the importance of place in programming for this fall.
“I guess it wasn’t something that we learned because of COVID, but it was sort of that reinforcement that having a physical museum is important,” Hughes said. “And having that opportunity for students to interact with the exhibits and explore the museum is an important way for them to learn.”
Despite the innovation, the pandemic was tough on museums financially. Many rely on visitation, donations and tourism. While these institutions often serve the public, they’re also employers in a community.
“Not only do we have a public educational role, nonprofits also have a really important economic role in our communities,” McClure, with the Maritime Museum, said. “I didn’t necessarily think of us that way before COVID, but as soon as this started, you saw horror stories from other museums around the country, of people laying off their entire departments or cutting museum staff by 75%.”
Many museums relied on federal Paycheck Protection Program loans. Yeager, with the New England Museum Association, said, of the more than 150 museums he has spoken to, nearly every one received at least one — if not two — PPP loans.
“Museum leaders recognized from the beginning was that whatever sources of revenues that they had traditionally counted on were up in the air,” Yeager said. “It wasn't clear what was going to happen, and talking about March of 2020 ... the bad news, of course, is that the visitation ... the bottom fell out of it.”
He said a survey of New England museums found that visitation fell by 75%.
Even though they had to rely on PPP loans, the Maritime Museum decided to open for free, to eliminate financial barriers people might have, especially during the pandemic. They hope to remain admission free in the future by relying on donations.
McClure said that free admission takes away the pressure of having to have the perfect experience. Now, museum-goers can just enjoy their time there, as they begin to reappear.
"We don’t want there to be any barriers to connecting with the lake or our history. And we felt that not charging admission was the best way to do that. And it’s been working out great. We’ve had a lot of people so far, even more than we’ve had in the past, pre-COVID years,” McClure said.
As visitors return, what's next
At the Main Street Museum in White River Junction, visitors can open drawers and rifle through their contents, peer into shelves full of odd objects and listen to the player piano. The usual events, parties and concerts that bring in revenue, stopped when the museum shut its doors in March 2020. The museum couldn’t translate the experience it offers digitally.
The Main Street Museum relied solely on a $5,000 grant from the Vermont Arts Council over this past year. Volunteer Joie Finley said last year, the museum took in no revenue.
Today, they’re only open by appointment. However, visitors seem to be slowly trickling back.
"The pandemic was so quiet around here. Inside, the museum was just an echo chamber. And it’s nice to start having people come back around,” Finley said.
The quiet nature of the museum over the past year inspired Finley to create her own living history exhibition. The exhibit shows what White River Junction used to look like and relates it back to the pandemic. The whole point: to make sure people don’t forget the lessons they’ve learned and the connections they’ve made.
“I hate for the idea that people will start to forget all of the important things that we learned during the COVID [pandemic], about spending time with family, about making sure that we’re good with our people,” she said.
McClure, with the Maritime Museum in Vergennes, said some of the changes the pandemic brought seem here to stay — especially the changes that created newfound connections between museums and the communities they serve.
“The public is going to continue to expect to receive their information and their entertainment and their education in lots of different ways," she said. "And for a museum, that’s great. That’s what we do already. We’re kind of experts in learning in lots of different ways, from lots of different angles. I think that is going to continue into the future for museums."