On the Road: Post-COVID Reopening Trends and Opportunities

I’ve now traveled from Maryland to California and noticing patterns in the ways that museums, historic sites, hotels, and restaurants are reopening after the quarantine. It’s a mixed assortment of responses, mostly because the guidelines and regulations vary from state to state and from museum to restaurant, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. But there are a few trends that reveal how museums and historic sites can create better visitor experiences.

Spreading infection through touch seems to be the most inconsistently addressed issue. When the country first shut down in spring 2019, there were concerns that the virus could be spread by touching surfaces. Research conducted in the last year, however, shows that risk is very low compared to holding a conversation with someone nearby without using masks. Yet most museums continue to have sanitary lotion stands, are covering elevator buttons in plastic, shutting down interactives, disinfecting counters, or warning you about “high touch” areas. Yet there are never any warnings about door handles or handrails, and I rarely find these precautions at restaurants or hotels. Are museums receiving guidance from different authorities, are they particularly risk averse, or do they have visitors that are especially risk averse compared to other similar tourist destinations?

Travel is growing across the country and hotels are experiencing it first. Every hotel mentioned that they’ve been sold out on weekends and frequently on weekdays since April. At a Home2 Hotel in Amarillo, Texas, they’ve been sold out every day since April except for four days. At a Hampton Inn in Zanesville, Ohio, they’ve been sold out everyday for the last two months and their guests are equally on business and vacation. Even more important, travelers are making their plans at the last minute. At an Aloft Hotel in Oklahoma City, the manager mentioned that their sold-out status happens just a few days in advance. On Thursday, they’ll have plenty of rooms for the weekend and by Friday, they’re sold out.

With little advance notice, hotels are scrambling to fill positions–and so are other businesses. I saw “help wanted” signs everywhere and in a lengthy conversation with a hotel manager, she mentioned she just finished training her last front desk staff person but housekeeping was far behind, which explained their housekeeping-on-request policy (which they confusingly call, “stayover service”). She mentioned that they’ve increased the housekeeper’s wages from $11 to $12, but they still have difficulty attracting qualified staff, and when they do, they don’t stay for more than a few weeks. And she recognized that wages couldn’t go much higher for housekeepers without affecting everyone else on staff because as a hotel manager, she earned $15 per hour.

A sign at the entrance door of a restaurant in New Mexico asking for patience “as we are short handed and training.”

Customers are frustrated by the lower level of service due to inexperienced or insufficient staff. It’s acute at hotels and restaurants but I’ve noticed it as well at museums. At a popular exhibit of stingrays at the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum in Missouri, I asked the staff member standing in front of the tank about the origin of the stingrays. He said he didn’t know–he was just directing visitors forward and nicely suggested I needed to ask someone else. Some museums and historic sites have reduced operating hours or closed buildings to compensate for reduced staff levels, but haven’t updated their websites accordingly.

How Museums and Historic Sites Can Respond More Quickly to Reopening

  1. On the home page of your museum’s website, provide key information on hours and expectations for visiting. Don’t contain it to your usual “plan your visit” page, but add it to your home page so it’s immediately visible. Hunting for the hours you are open can be challenging because the terms vary from museum to museum, and the links are in different places. Make it EASY for people to visit your museum. A complication will convince them to go elsewhere.
  2. While you’re updating your website, update your admission fees. I found websites with incorrect admission fees at museums big and small. Families really hate discovering that admission will be an extra $10 and museums look like dopes that can’t handle something as simple as updating a website.
  3. Highway and building construction is happening everywhere and could affect access to your museum. I found highway exits closed, streets rerouted, and signs removed in every state. At the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, construction closed the main road. Without GPS, it would have been very difficult to reach the Cultural Center through the winding neighborhood streets and around an elevated interstate. On your website, warn travelers about changes to the major highways leading to your museum and offer easy-to-understand alternatives. Remember that tourists will be unfamiliar with your city, so train the staff answering the phone on providing directions. I’m surprised how often the front desk staff have a narrow understanding of the neighborhood. They’ll know the route they take to the museum but if it’s from another direction, they’ll have no clue.
  4. If access to your museum or historic site is limited, consider alternatives. Allow people to visit the grounds to see the historic house exterior and the landscape. Provide temporary interpretive signs outside. Suggest other nearby historic sites or museums to visit. Create a guided tour that can be enjoyed on a cell phone. Think of ways to be your community’s concierge, even if when you’re closed. It’s a much better experience for visitors than walking up to your front door to only discover a sign that reads, “Thank you for visiting. This exhibition space is currently closed.”
  5. Rethink your guidelines and policies for health and safety and aim for consistency with other businesses that serve the same audiences (such as hotels and restaurants). It is incredibly confusing for tourists and while they tend to be adventurous, the plethora of varying expectations becomes overwhelming and exhausting. Recognize that visitors assume the museum to be “back to normal” but if you can’t meet that expectation, warn them well in advance and several times. Figure out if you’re participating in “safety theatre” and making things far worse than necessary. I’m not going to offer advice on the specifics except that it be as consistent and science-based as possible.
Boy, this museum and I have very different definitions of what “visiting” means.

On the Road: Hitting Triples with a Single Artwork

Entrance hall, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.

At the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, a monumental bright white sculpture of an Indian slouched on a horse fills the end of the entrance hall. James Earle Fraser created “The End of the Trail” for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earning him a Gold Medal. It also became a popular image that signaled the end of a free people.

The Museum acquired the plaster statue from Tulare County (California) Historical Society, where it sat outside in a city park deteriorating for nearly 50 years. Now the restored statue is the centerpiece of this large museum and they’ve used this one object to hit a triple with visitors, to borrow a phrase from baseball.

Along with a typical label describing the sculpture’s creation, acquisition, and significance, it includes a Native American View in a second label of equal length by Dr. David Edmunds, a Cherokee. He states that the sculpture represents the popular view of “a nineteenth century Indian warrior defeated and bound for oblivion—frozen in time. By the 1890s, Native Americans knew their trail had become steep and rocky, but they believed it would continue.” The label continues to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by Native Americans in the 20th century and that “being Indian has never been cast in stone. Today, Native Americans proudly ride forward on a trail into the future.”

The use of labels to provide multiple perspectives is not uncommon in art museums, but I haven’t seen it used enough in history museums. They are ideal places to show that events, places, and eras are experienced differently by different people. It’s an easy way to enrich interpretation without the need to create entirely new exhibitions or special events on women, African Americans, or Native Americans.

The Museum gets to second base by incorporating a third label for children, but it’s made mysterious to capture their attention. It’s smaller and positioned for their height, featuring just one question. The answer is printed below but hidden in a tangle of color than can only be revealed with a viewer that filters out some of the colors. These labels are found throughout the museum but I have to admit I didn’t see children using them—they found the objects far more fascinating and relied on their parents for the interpretation. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see a museum consider the needs and interests of a specific audience in order to engage them.

Finally, the 18-foot sculpture is an eye-catcher and the Museum saw that its popularity would continue in selfies. So they built on that interest to mark the best place to stand to take a photo and provided a hashtage. Increasingly museums have become aware they need to create “photo opportunities” to engage visitors as well as to aid publicity. Providing a spot on the floor is a terrific idea (and they appear elsewhere in the Museum).

I do wonder, however, if this monumental sculpture sets the right opening tone for the museum. It reinforces the harmful stereotype of the “proud savage” that was defeated long ago and is now gone. Is it any different from a bronze statue to a Confederate general astride a horse in a museum about the Civil War? What’s the message being conveyed? What do visitors think? Visitors rarely read labels and at the Museum, they’ve probably been pulled away by the other nearby exhibits before they’ve had a chance to read how the sculpture reflects one perspective and that the story is much more complicated. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum needs to be bolder with the interpretation of “The End of the Trail” to overcome the symbolism of the image, and indeed, it may require more than words. Let’s aim for a home run.

On the Road: Rethinking “Cast in Bronze”

At my first stop at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I was faced with a historical marker at the entrance to the parking lot. A unexpected location but far more accessible than on the side of a busy highway. All of the recent conversations about decolonization has me always take a closer look at these markers but more interestingly, I’ve encountered several different types of markers so far on my road trip that have me thinking more about their value, veracity, authenticity, and permanence by being “cast in bronze”.

As you’ll see, location matters as much as the text. Some are intentional efforts to deceive, some are not. Some are historical, some artistic, some a bit of both. They are all designed to be inspirational, some more deeply than others. Do any of them matter? Do they have any impact? What do you think?

“Great Indian Warrior/Trading Path,” Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.
“Eddie Taylor, Mayor of 7th and Wabash,” Terre Haute, Indiana.

“History of Springfield Public Square,” Springfield, Missouri.

On the Road: Small is Beautiful

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.

On my first day on the road, I made my first stop just after an hour in Hagerstown, Maryland to see the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Set in a county park near its historic downtown, it has a surprisingly fine collection of American and European art from 17th to 19th century. Exemplary portraits by the Peale family, bronze sculptures by Rodin, vases by Tiffany and Lalique, and pots by George Ohr are found among its collections of 7,000 objects–that’s small compared to most art museums. Along with displaying their collections, they also organize temporary exhibitions, such as one on Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) of Baltimore, the first professional African-American painter. Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, Jr. (heirs to a family fortune, not of sewing machine fame) established the museum in the 1931 after they had traveled the world.

More interesting, however, was my discussion with board president Roger Fairbourn and curator Daniel Fulco about the vision of the museum. It’s clear they don’t want to collect more to become another Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they do plan to grow. They are hosting more ambitious traveling exhibitions, such as the current one on 17th century Italian paintings. They are adding more facilities for education, but that’s in response to community interest. They are expanding their collections, but it is to diverse their American art by including under-represented stories and move further into the 20th century. They also recognize their primary audience is the surrounding four counties, not tourists. Their strengths are uncommon and a refreshing change from the usual bigger-is-better, get-more-tourists mentality that usually infests the minds of museums. This is a tough position to take because it goes against the usual metrics, in this case, smaller is better.

Another surprise: a board president who can explain the history of the museum, its vision for the future, and discuss the significance of the current exhibition. I happened to run into him accident, when he caught me taking photos outside and stopped to chat. When I expressed my interest in the history and management of the museum, he took me around to the side of the museum to explain the physical evolution of the building, then took me inside to talk about the exhibitions and their vision. While we were chatting, he noticed another visitor was puzzled by the Johnson exhibition, so he stopped to describe its significance and pointed out a painting that might interest her. And he didn’t do it by flaunting his position at the museum (he just introduced himself as Roger). What!? If anyone on your board of trustees can do this, you’re in luck. Most can’t.

Visiting these small art museums verifies that small history museums, which dominant the field, can be effective and worthy organizations. They just need to develop a vision that pursues impact on their audience rather than size of collections or attendance.

Taking a Summer Road Trip

Like most of America, I’m taking a road trip this summer. After a long year of teaching and working online, I’m drained so I’m looking to get recharged by this vacation on wheels. I’ve always loved road trips, especially ones with loose itineraries, because it gives a chance to see lots of new places and meet people from around the country.

As I drive across America from Maryland to California, I’ll take you along for the ride with occasional posts of some of the museums and historic sites I’ve visited as well as what I’ve learned from the people who work there. My list is long and my time is short, but I’m eager to see the Ohio History Connection, Missouri Botanic Garden, Cherokee Heritage Center, Oklahoma City National Memorial, and Mary Coulter’s La Posada Restaurant. Plus I’ll be doing some research on Christmas in nineteenth century California when I’m in Los Angeles!

How to Connect Your Site to the Semiquincentennial

Semiquincentennial? That’s the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—a quarter millennium! Let’s leave the huge words behind and consider that 2026 is coming up fast—and it’s a huge opportunity to raise the profile of your house museum or historic site. When the Bicentennial arrived in 1976, it significantly increased attendance, funding, and interest in history. You don’t want to let this chance get away from you and preparation will be crucial to make the most of it.

If you’re not in Philadelphia, don’t despair. Just because the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed in your town, no Founding Fathers lived there, and no Revolutionary War battles fought nearby, you can make important connections if you focus on the big ideas that came out of that event. After all, the Declaration of Independence was part of a larger move to separate from Great Britain and become Americans. Well, it’s more complicated than that and the process of becoming Americans continues, and boy, that’s a terrific story with ambition, conflicts, failures, and successes.

Every tour, exhibition, event, and school field trip should have a compelling theme to engage its audience.* Even better, themes should connect across these programs and activities. An overarching theme will help your visitors better recognize the ideas and content that you want to share with them. The ideas are continually reinforced and result in a bigger impact. Good teachers do this all the time in the classroom and it’s easily adapted to museums and historic sites.

What if we adopted a super-overarching theme, one that spanned museums and historic sites across the county or state? It would seem impossible, but help is on the way.

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HLI Seminar: Gone Virtual in 2021

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

The History Leadership Institute Seminar is back this year, going virtual after postponing last year due to the pandemic. Rather than trying to duplicate the residential format online, John Marks, Alex Collins, and I considered the online applications available to AASLH as well as best practices for online learning. For example, effective learning doesn’t occur by passively watching presentations continuously for six hours a day. It has to be broken up to keep participants engaged. As a result, we added considerably more time for participants to work on their own through readings and exercises, building on what is presented and discussed in live online sessions. The new format for each topic is:

  • 2 hours in a facilitated live session to explore a topic through presentations, discussions, and small breakout groups.
  • 2-3 hours on your own to apply the ideas and techniques to your organization or career.
  • 1 hour in a facilitated live session to discuss the results, assess what worked (and what didn’t), ask questions, and determine next steps.

We also have time to add readings to provoke discussions, expand perspectives, and add more detail. This week’s session on “You as the Instrument of Change,” Julie Johnson is suggesting the following:

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Forthcoming: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums

The past year has been so busy for me that I’ve rarely been able to share what I’m discovering and learning through this blog, but with the pandemic restrictions lifting, my posts should be more frequent. The biggest challenge for me was teaching graduate courses online at George Washington University. I usually teach in-person using a whiteboard and a list of goals for each class, using the class discussion to inspire how the presentation will proceed. Online, whiteboards are very difficult to use (try writing with a mouse!) and students were reluctant to have discussions online (most students kept their cameras off). So I built PowerPoint presentations for every class to address each of my goals, keep students engaged, and avoid being a talking head on a computer screen. Incredibly time consuming and exhausting. I’m so glad to be returning to campus this fall for in-person instruction—and so are our students!

Although online teaching was incredibly demanding, I still had time to pursue other projects including a second book with Ken Turino of Historic New England: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums and Historic Sites. Although dozens of books have been published on the national and regional history of Christmas celebrations in the last two decades, there are no how-to books on the research, interpretation, and programming of Christmas at historic sites or museums.  In March, Rowman and Littlefield accepted our proposal and it will be part of the Interpreting series at the American Association for State and Local History. We are working with contributors from across the country to assemble two dozen chapters for publication in spring 2023 and although we’re still identifying contributors and case studies, and the contents are subject to change, here’s what’s happening so far:

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National Park Service Installing Face Masks on Monuments

Monuments at US National Parks will be wearing face masks to encourage safe practices during the pandemic.

In response to climbing COVID rates, federal monuments will be wearing “face masks” to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Biden Administration has urged governors and mayors to implement mask mandates nationwide, however, adoption has been inconsistent and infection rates are climbing.

Mask wearing has become a political, rather than health issue, in the United States. In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, who teaches U.S. and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University, noted that “masks have become the most visible sign of our current political, cultural and social moment. …It’s now the latest chapter in the culture wars over our identity as a nation, our fundamental values and our rights as citizens.”

The Louvre, France’s national museum of art, has promoted face masks in a campaign featuring the iconic Mona Lisa.

As part of the U. S. Department of the Interior’s “Meeting the Moment” campaign, the National Park Service will install “face masks” on monuments at national parks on April 1 to promote healthy behaviors that reduce spread during the pandemic. “Our monuments feature some of America’s greatest heroes and if they’re wearing face masks, it will further encourage participation by our citizens,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief of public affairs. “European museums have been incredibly successful in turning selfie-worthy artworks into public health campaigns. Our National Parks will have a bigger impact because our monuments are bigger. And of course the presidents at Mount Rushmore should wear face masks—look how close they are to each other!”

Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial will be among the most visible monuments to wear face masks, however, the campaign will include lesser known statues such as Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge National Historical Park and Ansel Adams at the National Garden of American Heroes. The goal is to include at least one monument in every National Park, which will be challenging. The Pony Express National Historic Trail only has a statue of a galloping horse at its visitor center in St. Joseph, Missouri. “I know horses aren’t wearing face masks during COVID, but that’s the only option we have,” said executive director Cindy Daffron. “It may look foolish, but it creates the kind of Instagram moment that the public wants.”

Who Knows How COVID Affected History Organizations? AASLH Will With Your Help.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Visitation at history organizations was flat from 2018 to 2019, according to AASLH’s 2020 National Visitation Report. More than 1,100 institutions across the country found almost no change in visitation from 2018 to 2019. But what will be the impact of COVID-19 on visitation in 2020?

According to AAM and Wilkening Consulting, their “National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums” in October 2020 survey of museums revealed that nearly one-third of executive directors believed there was a “significant risk” (12%) of closing permanently by fall 2021 or they “didn’t know” (17%) if they would survive. Secondly, it showed that “museums are operating at, on average, 35% of their capacity–an attendance reduction that is unsustainable long-term.”

It’s now nearly six months later and time for the field to share our annual metrics to understand what actually happened, not rely on predictions. AASLH is now collecting data for the 2021 National Visitation Survey—it closes on Wednesday, March 31. It takes ten minutes to complete and all survey respondents will receive free, advance access to the results later this year. You will need on-hand your visitation data for 2019 and 2020, and your institution’s budget and staffing for 2020. More details and the survey are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Visitation2021.