The coronavirus has made a lot of people realize they’ve been living life with a gross underappreciation for human connection—including the ability to go to a museum and learn with others.
So … how do museums serve the public when people can’t physically connect?
We recently spoke to representatives of the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, the Coachella Valley History Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum about how they are each handling the closure—and what attendees can expect when they finally reopen.
The Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert wanted to keep reaching people during the shutdown—so it implemented a new online learning program called “Discover at Home,” which can be accessed via the museum’s website, cdmod.org.
“Not having visitors anymore, we wanted to continue being a valuable community resource for children and families, especially now during these uncertain times,” said Gregoria Rodriguez, chief programs and exhibits officer at CDMOD. “We created this series, and everything is offered completely virtually. It’s on our website and social-media platforms, and now on YouTube at CDMOD. The series offers everything from conversation starters, to story times, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) lessons, cooking—and we even brought back our toddler program. We offer toddler programs year-round at the museum, and this is the first time we are offering it at no charge to the families, as well as all of the other programs.”
The museum is posting a weekly “Conversation Starter” on Mondays. One example: If you had 1 million marshmallows, what would you build?
“They are simple questions for the families that they can talk about together, and get their creative juices flowing and ready for the rest of the programs during the week,” Rodriguez said. “The rest of the curriculum is the stuff we do normally at the museum. I’m hoping that families new to the museum or families who knew about us and have forgotten can see what we do year-round—and when we reopen our doors, will be coming in to participate in person.”
The museum’s weekly video series—a new one is uploaded every Wednesday morning—does a great job of emulating what one may learn from a day of visiting the museum.
“The videos are a collaboration of myself doing the story times; and Ashley (Whitley), our makerspace and art coordinator, doing some arts and crafts activities,” Rodriguez said. “Kory (Lloyd), our early childhood-education coordinator, does a lot of the toddler classes. We provide a walk-through video, just in case the written-out steps we provide aren’t clear enough.
“We didn’t want to provide Zoom classes right now, so as to not interfere with some families who have just started distance learning and may be having to share a computer.”
The idea of an online museum had been on the minds of some at the CDMOD prior to the outbreak, Rodriguez said.
“We’ve been getting really great feedback, and this has been something we have wanted to do anyway,” Rodriguez said. “This was really the push that we needed to go online and reach more families this way. I don’t anticipate our online presence ending at all, because I’m still not really sure how people are going to react when everything’s open. I hope they aren’t hesitant to come in, because we are amping up our sanitary procedures—but if they are, we will still have the online lessons available.
“We’re so interactive, and we really encourage hands-on play and exploration. We want to ensure that families feel safe when they come back to the museum.”
All of the programming is being offered for free—and Rodriguez said she hopes the museum can rely on families and donors to continue to preserve this community asset.
“Even though we are offering everything for free, we do appreciate donations,” Rodriguez said. “We normally rely on admissions, memberships, birthday parties, field trips, camps, etcetera. … The museum has been a part of the community for over 30 years. We have some people on our staff who were museum children, came back with their kids to visit, and are now on our staff. To see that we are so involved with people’s lives and the community—we just can’t wait to get these doors open again.”
Carol Scott, the chief executive officer/executive director of CDMOD, talked about how the closure has caused a serious financial strain.
“We have really made an effort in the last few years to bring back new life into the museum,” Scott said. “After 20 years, things can get pretty stale. Last year, our attendance was almost 85,000. The museum doesn’t have a huge donor base, so we have really worked on getting our revenue up. Our budget is about 85 percent earned revenue—attendance, memberships and people walking through the door. This (closure) is really hurtful for us, because we’re so dependent on earned revenue. We’ve been working on donations, writing grants, etcetera.”
The fact that the pandemic hit in mid-March—the height of the busy season—was especially painful, Scott said.
“Many businesses in the valley rely on the extra income that comes in during the season,” Scott said. “We lost that time, and that usually is what helps us through the slow seasons. Our two major fundraisers, which happen in March and May, could not happen. When do the locusts fly in?
“We’re here to serve the community; we just need to stay afloat so we can do that. We’re doing the best we can at researching how other organizations and museums are addressing the issue. Nonprofits like us have an extra burden—because we’re dependent on fundraising, and it’s a hard time to ask people for money.”
As for reopening, children’s museums face a significant challenge, as they rely on direct interaction—unlike, say, art museums.
“The reason a children’s museum exists is to provide informal learning that is away from technology,” Scott said. “You want kids to be doing things hands-on, creating and interacting with real things. That’s the value proposition of children’s museums across the country—so now we’re all having to redefine that value. The children’s museum (concept) has been around for over 100 years, and has really focused on being the alternative learning space to what goes on in the classroom. As the classroom has to redefine their delivery, we have to redefine what we’re doing.
“When museums do start to reopen, we will have to drastically change our delivery, because we are very much an active, play-learning environment. All of the new sanitary requirements will have to be adhered to strictly, as now there’s the fear of children having secondary infections. We are really looking at all of the consequences of this, both intended and unintended, and determining how to continue to be a valuable community asset.”
Scott understands that families may be hesitant to return to the physical museum at first, but said she and her staff have always made sanitation and safety a top priority.
“The beauty of a children’s museum is that it is seen as a very safe place for family play and learning, and we are working to continue that perception going,” she said. “We are very picky when it comes to cleaning the exhibits, and we are looking at other museums when they start to reopen to see what will work best.
“We will border upon being incredibly picky and cautious—as I take the job of protecting children very seriously.”
Gloria Franz, the second vice president of the Coachella Valley History Museum’s board of directors (cvhm.org), said the Indio museum—dedicated to “preserving and sharing the history of the Coachella Valley”—will not rush to reopen its doors.
“We are working on cleaning and organizing our archives and also trying to do a lighting and fans project for the blacksmith shop,” Franz said. “Most of our volunteers are seniors, so they’re on lockdown. Our one staff member comes in three days a week to check the campus, return calls, pick up the mail and pay bills.
“We’re just getting the exhibits ready for when we reopen—and we’ve decided, as a board, not to reopen until Oct. 1, because in the summer, we’re kind of quiet anyway. We’re trying to prepare for a deep cleaning prior to opening, so that everybody can be assured that we’ve cleaned as much as we can, and that we can make it as safe as we can for our guests and our volunteers.”
While the stay-at-home order has meant that the museum had to halt at least one large project, Franz said she’s hopeful the closure won’t be too damaging to the museum’s finances.
“We have a 15,000-square-foot piece of land that’s still empty on our campus that we’ve designed as a community drought-tolerant garden,” Franz said. “We also are designing an outdoor railway exhibit, and bringing in an older Southern Pacific Railroad dining car that used to come through the Coachella Valley. So as soon as things open up, we’re going to go full force back into that project so we’ll have something new to offer.
“Our annual fundraiser isn’t until November, so we’re hoping that by November, we can still have our fundraiser—because it would put a little dent in our operation if it didn’t happen.”
Franz and her team are saddened that the virus has affected events that were planned at the museum.
“We get donations just here and there—for example, we have a family that supports our rose garden, and we also have reserves for all the basic costs,” Franz said. “Because our staff is so lean, we don’t have a huge overhead, and the city has been very supportive in handling our utilities, gardeners and any major repairs, because the city actually owns the property. What hurt us was that we had been working really hard for the last five or six years to make the campus become an events venue for weddings, retirement parties, quinceañeras and everything else. We were just starting to pick up momentum on that—and we’ve had to lose all of that progress. We have some events scheduled in the fall, so we’re hoping that that’ll continue.
“We want people to know that our venue is available for private events. It’s actually a gorgeous campus—so when you have a wedding there, the photos are just spectacular. We had a teacher get married in the school house and she loved it. It was just perfect.”
While other museums have pivoted toward an online experience, Franz said such a thing would not be a fit for the Coachella Valley History Museum.
“If we did a video on the school house, it’s not the same as stepping into the building,” she said. “To me, museums allow you to experience something in a way that a photo or a video just can’t give you. I think things will return to people wanting to know the history and what has made the valley what it is—and that’s what we provide.
“I’m not worried that this is going to change everything permanently. I think for the next six months to a year, it’s going to be slow, even when we do reopen—but we’ll be careful. We clean all the time, and we’re planning now to have enough disinfectant to be able to wipe everything down every single time somebody comes through. We’re working to make sure that we’re prepared to clean in the best way we can for our volunteers and our guests.
“We do work on donations, so we’d love to have people become members. Join our email list and like us on Facebook, and just kind of see what’s happening. We had quite a few things lined up for the spring that didn’t happen, such as a mole-tasting which was going to connect to our exhibit about Mexican art. Everything’s online if anybody needs anything, and they can also just email the office, and we’ll get it to the right person.”
Louis Grachos, the chief executive officer and executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, said closing the downtown Palm Springs museum, its Palm Desert satellite location and its Architecture and Design Center was in and of itself a challenging task.
“We shut down on the 12th of March, based on the recommendations from the governor,” Grachos said. “We were literally in the middle of our season, as January, February and March are the most active periods. There was a lot happening, and it took a lot of coordination to officially close the museum and figure out how to resolve all the issues regarding staff and furloughing.”
Grachos said the museum will not rush to reopen—and instead is taking things one day at a time.
“We are keeping tabs on what the governor is advising on a daily basis,” he said. “We are trying to form a strategy as to when we do get to reopen—what will things look like? We are going to have to understand how to manage visitors, respect mask laws and social distancing, and remove any opportunity that would entice people to congregate, such as the labels and introductory panels for exhibitions.”
Grachos said it’s likely the museum will stay closed until the fall—and that he had an epiphany, of sorts, during a recent visit to the Palm Springs Certified Farmers’ Market.
“They have to accommodate distancing for people waiting in line,” Grachos said. “The amount of physical space and the wrap-around was pretty remarkable, and I started to envision what that could look like at our museum. It’s pretty daunting, because we’d need to have people stretched out to the sidewalk, which would require some tenting. It’s going to be a logistical challenge.
“Safety is a huge priority, and I believe that will determine when we actually get to reopen. We are hoping to reopen sometime in fall, but ‘reopening’ is going to mean something different—limited days, limited hours, etcetera. It’s our hope that the community will want to visit museums in the same way they’ll want to go to the park. The consensus between me and other colleagues, from The Broad in Los Angeles to the MoMA in New York, is that we are expecting about one-third of our usual audience when we open doors again, and it will probably be that way for the next two years.”
Grachos said the idea of how museums operate will need to be rethought completely.
“In my generation, there was a big emphasis on museums becoming cultural gathering places,” he said. “The concept was to create a social environment with experiential encounters. We’re really committed to that notion of museums being a cultural hub—and that is something that museum culture is going to have to rethink. The last 20 years have seen museums incorporating interactive designs that have enriched learning experiences. Observing distancing and the careful mediation of the number of people entering will shift museum programming.
“I won’t have a discussion with an artist and 25 people walking through the gallery anymore.”
Grachos said the Palm Springs Art Museum has been harmed by the economic collapse that has affected us all.
“The day the doors closed is the day revenue stopped coming in,” he said. “We’re relying on our traditional support base, but the stop of revenue is going to have a major impact on our museum. We are now going to have to downscale and streamline our organization, ask a smaller staff to take on more responsibilities, and rethink programming, cost-wise. We were going through a phase of being more resourceful with our permanent collection, including less tours and more investigation in growing and showcasing shows of our permanent collection. I see the Palm Springs Art Museum as being a great asset for the community in terms of exposure and education. We have to find a way to maintain a strengthened profile in the community to ride through this period.
“Those who love supporting art and culture do so on discretionary funds and confidence in the market. People who are very generous to cultural institutions are now a little more careful with their philanthropy, because of the stock market and economic impact of the virus. Frankly, we’re preparing for less support. People who support our museum also support other museums, so it’s going to make it very difficult for all museums to rely on philanthropy. The city’s funding support is also going to be challenged because of the lack of revenue. We are not going to be able to rely on the government to support us, either, outside of the Payroll Protection Plan. I’m bracing myself for a tough few years.”
The Palm Springs Art Museum is boosted its online outreach via its Palm Springs Art Museum at Home offerings (www.psmuseum.org/at-home).
“That was the brainchild of our terrific curatorial team, Rochelle Steiner, and our educator, who pulled together a wonderful way to keep our audience, our community and our educators engaged,” Grachos said. “We’ve been hosting art-making workshops on Fridays, and parents have been enjoying including it as an added activity for their kids.
“We also have been having online exhibitions. We’ve focused on Stephen Willard, and our great archiving collection, and we’ve focused on the Sarkowsky sculpture park in Palm Desert. These online exhibitions have been getting a lot of good attention, and reminds our audience that we have this great resource. Rochelle is also working on spotlighting parts of our collection, which will also reveal, both locally and nationally, how varied our collection is.
“It’s been an important deal for us to stay connected to the community, and I’m very pleased to say we’ve had a great response. Sometimes a crisis helps you create a different way to keep communicating.”