By Elizabeth P. Stewart and the members of the AASLH Small Museums Committee: Jacqui Ainlay-Conley, Alison Bruesehoff, Aimee Newell, Ann Bennett, Brian Failing, Bruce Teeple, Laura Casey, Melissa Prycer, Nate Meyers, Neal Hitch, and Sean Blinn.
AASLH’s Small Museums Committee met by conference call last week—our first meeting since the novel coronavirus really took hold in the U.S.—and comparing notes was eye-opening. It felt good to know that we’re all grappling with similar issues, and we hoped that some of these insights would sound familiar to you, too.
“Who’s in charge here?”: Like all businesses, schools, and other institutions, small museums struggled with unprecedented circumstances in which health and operational guidance was wildly conflicting. Museums benefited from governors who quickly made clear, across-the-board decisions that put everyone in the same boat.
“I’m in charge here”: Some of our members had challenging interactions with their boards about museum closures and staff teleworking. It’s safe to say that none of our institutions had teleworking policies in place, so in some small museums, even after stay at home orders came down from governors, well-meaning boards thought that staff would be fine continuing to come in and working six feet apart. Directors often became advocates for workers, which required some delicate conversations.
“Keeping our museum in the public eye”: Like most museums around the world, small museums have reached out to suddenly homeschooling parents, grandparents, and teachers. We’ve beefed up our online educational resources, strengthened our social media profiles, and started experimenting with technologies new to us. Small museums’ abilities to quickly mobilize in a crisis, with minimal staff and resources, is inspiring.
“Do all the planning, but don’t put anything on the calendar”: To keep staff working, some small museums went into planning mode, doing their best to anticipate the future visitor landscape and how to best serve them once we can reopen safely. The uncertainty around what a phased reopening will look like is testing small museums’ legendary flexibility, and solutions are in the works.
“We’ve scratched bottom before”: The loss of income will be critical for many museums going forward, and small museums are often even closer to fiscal difficulty, with few reserves and a smaller pool of supporters. Our members have been diligently applying for aid for which their institutions are eligible: the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL); newly created NEH funds; and cultural funding programs closer to home. Some have rescheduled fundraisers from spring to autumn, and some will be trying online fundraising techniques for the first time. The good news is that in this unprecedented experience, new solutions will be forthcoming, and small museums’ ingenuity, flexibility, and creativity positions us well to take advantage of these.
Are you struggling with these or other coronavirus-related challenges? Have you found solutions that work for your organization? Please share them in the comments here or on AASLH’s Small Museums Forum.
The AASLH Small Museums Affinity Community assists America’s small museums in their endeavors, helping to make them stronger and more responsive to their communities. The majority of museums in the United States are considered small and include historic house museums, history museums, art museums, historic sites, general museums, and much more. Our definition is simple: “If you think you’re small, you’re small.” We welcome any and all interested in our mission of making America’s small museums the very best they can be. Learn more.
How is your institution coping with COVID-19? Share your ideas and experiments with the field on our blog. Email [email protected] to submit a blog post.