Museums in the Stateline Area are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic by offering virtual tours, digitizing collections and taking safety precautions to protect in-person visitors.
The Wright Museum of Art at Beloit College typically welcomes the public to all exhibitions, gallery talks and lectures. But the pandemic quickly changed that as the school closed the museum to off-campus visitors and left museum staff to find new ways to connect with the community.
Wright Museum Curator Christa Story said she was initially “absolutely concerned” about the museum’s future but quickly pivoted in partnership with Director Joy Beckham to research the museum’s collections catalog and start on a new path forward.
“It seemed like we were just dropping everything and the future was very much unknown,” Story said. “...At the very beginning, I think we were hopeful we would at least be back by fall and wouldn’t have to reschedule too many exhibitions and programs, but even though we are ‘back’ we’ve still had to re-think many things.”
After seeing other museums begin to share collections online, Story said she knew the Wright Museum could also highlight its unique catalog of art.
“I am so thrilled that we moved forward, because as you can see, we had just made some very important acquisitions,” Story said.
The virtual Wright museum includes both exhibits and collection highlights. A permanent fixture to the virtual museum will be a tour of the Hollensteiner Gallery where highlights from the permanent collection are installed. In a video, users can hear and see talks about specific objects in the collection.
“I think first and foremost, art is good for us, and it’s important to be able to share our collection with the world,” Story said. Especially during such a tumultuous time politically, during a pandemic, it feels good to put good things out there.”
Story said the museum’s decision to digitize its collection and virtually host an online museum was a way of necessary survival as museums across the globe face the sad reality of having to close.
“Frankly, even if virtual exhibits were widely used prior to COVID-19, I still don’t think they would have been as popular—because it’s always better to see art/ exhibitions in person. But we don’t have that choice right now,” Story said.
Across the state line in Illinois, both the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Discovery Center have taken steps to still allow in-person visitors to the Riverfront Museum Park.
At Burpee, museum staff took 360-degree museum scans to allow members to have access to the museum from home. Burpee implemented a pre-purchase system to ensure the number of visitors falls into Winnebago County Health Department guidelines, along with deep cleaning before and after guests arrive. Each day, the museum closes mid-day to clean high touch surfaces and other areas to prevent any issues with COVID-19.
An online portal created earlier this year has garnered thousands of views for those wishing to experience Burpee’s collections online. A portion of the virtual collection is available for free online, while schools and other groups can request access from the museum directly.
“We have been able to rally great community support which includes volunteers working pro bono and donors willing to help us move through this crisis,” said Executive Director Anne Weerda.
Weerda said the biggest challenge for Burpee throughout the pandemic has been managing finances in an unpredictable environment caused by the pandemic.
“With visitor numbers down, field trips and education outreach on hold, and events cancelled due to limits from the health department, we are facing a lack of income for the foreseeable future,” Weerda said. “While many of the day-to-day tasks remain the same for museum operations, the number of staff we can employ is significantly decreased due to lack of income.”
At the Discovery Center Museum, Director of Marketing Ann Marie Walker said museum staff had to re-think all cleaning procedures of the museum’s 300 exhibits to create a more robust cleaning plan.
“Now our biggest challenge is to secure revenue to keep our doors open and our programs accessible,” Walker said. “We want to remain a community resource—to be a safe place for families to come and have fun, de-stress and connect with family. Currently, it costs us more to stay open than to temporarily close again until restrictions are lifted and more families feel safe venturing out to museums and attractions.”
In the spring, Walker said museum staff switched gears to begin offering online content for families and educators, something that’s never happened before in the museum’s history, she said.
“Suddenly our educators were creating videos for virtual science demonstrations, at-home science activities, story times, sing-alongs, art projects and more,” Walker said. “Even our staff that weren’t educators contributed talents they didn’t necessarily use on their job.”
The Discovery Center is now back to offering both in-person and remote classes for students with social distancing measures in place with reduced class sizes.
For more information on the Wright Museum of Art, visit http://virtualwrightmuseum.com/.
For information on Burpee Natural History Museum, visit burpee.org/.
For more information on the Discovery Center, visit discoverycentermuseum.org.