Museums Try to Reach Visitors and Stay Afloat

Apr 2, 2020

A sign informs visitors of the closure of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. It also includes recommendations for social distancing in the museum's outdoor areas.
Credit Cat Modlin-Jackson

Hundreds of museums across Virginia have closed, just as droves of field trippers and after-hours crowds were set to gather for spring events.

So what happens now that the lights are out and would-be visitors are stuck at home?

Were it any other year, March Ratness would have just wrapped up at the Science Museum of Virginia. There, fans would be getting ready to see their favorite rodent compete in the annual Final Fur tournament.  Jennifer Guild, the museum’s Manager of Communications and Curiosity, describes the event. "So, if you can imagine a room full of 130 people who are super excited when their rat scores a basket."

March Ratness in action at the Science Museum of Virginia
Credit Science Museum of Virginia

Guild says that, like the actual NCAA matches, March Ratness and Final Fur were cancelled last month, when the museum closed to protect employees and thousands of expected visitors from the spread of coronavirus. 

Though the doors are shut, everyone is working to keep the museum alive -- even if most are doing so from the safety of their homes. "What we’re focusing on is making sure we’re still providing people with opportunities to enjoy and discover the science that’s all around them," Guild says.

Staff are writing blogs and posting on social media to share new educational content, like a Facebook video that explains social distancing. 

Across the Commonwealth, three-dimensional places are trying to fit into two-dimensional spaces.  Monticello is broadcasting daily tours live from Charlottesville. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture is hosting a series of webinars for adults and young learners. The Black History Museum & Cultural Center is launching a ‘black history at home’ newsletter.

And all 50,000 works from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are available for online viewing, says director Alex Nyerges.  "So you can look at anything you want to see, [in] fact you can probably see it better than you can in the galleries."

But for all that technology affords, screens are no substitute for reality, he says. "The physical object -- the real, the genuine, the authentic -- can never be replaced, no matter how wonderful your resolution is on your computer."

A sense of wonder isn’t all that’s lost.  Without patrons, there are no gift shops, weddings or special exhibitions to generate revenue and occupy workers whose jobs hinge on customer interaction. 

The American Alliance of Museums estimates that about 28,000 people in Virginia are employed in the industry.   Many of those positions are in jeopardy now, especially at institutions without large endowments to fall back on, according to Jennifer Thomas, executive director of the Virginia Association of Museums.   "They don’t have anything for their part-timers to do, so they aren’t paying them. "

Regardless of how big or small, most museums are fragile, she says, but they’re also resilient.  Those with the means are finding other ways to occupy receptionists, cashiers and docents. Some are cleaning instead of chatting up guests. Others are helping with online content.

It’s a change for everyone, including the rat basketball players from the Science Museum of Virginia. The team has moved off campus, for now, but they’re still in training, getting ready for next season.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.