Historic Sites and COVID-19: What a Difference a Week Makes

In the week since I last reported on the impact of COVID-19 on house museums and historic sites, things have changed significantly. A sampling of websites around the country shows that most have closed through the end of March and many have canceled events through April. Last Friday, the home pages of The Alamo, Minnesota Historical Society, and Colonial Williamsburg made no mention of the virus, but within days they did. CW made a special effort to contact me to clarify that they had posted a message on its website on Tuesday, March 10 that it was “temporarily suspending ‘hands-on’ aspects of Historic Area and Art Museums programming to limit frequent contact with common objects and surfaces by employees, volunteers and guests. Colonial Williamsburg is otherwise observing normal operations and hours”, however, this was not present on its home page, where most visitors first search for information. One of the lessons we’re learning from this situation is how, when, and where we communicate vital information to our visitors and that we may need to update our emergency response procedures. Keep notes for your debriefings later on!

We can also anticipate this will have significant financial consequences, especially for those who rely heavily on tourism or revenue from admissions. At this point, I haven’t heard of any major decisions in response to this particular situation (such as layoffs), but historic sites are long experienced with hurricanes, snowstorms, hot and humid days, tree falls, and road closures that can suddenly cause attendance to plunge or prevent access to the site. We’re a resilient bunch. On the top of our minds is the unanswerable question is how long will the restrictions last? And how long will it take to resume normal operations after restrictions have lifted? Colleen Dilenschneider provides some advice to the latter question in “Why Marketing Matters During COVID-19 Closures.”

But perhaps there’s an even bigger question that we should be considering: how can house museums and historic sites contribute to our communities in this type of situation? Are we helpless or helpful? Are we vital or trivial? Certainly we need to place the health and safety of our staff (both paid and volunteer) and visitors above our buildings and collections, but then what’s next? Now that the initial response to the virus is waning, I’m seeing some movement in this regard:

  • Museums and historic sites are emphasizing online access through social media. James Madison’s Montpelier has been moving in this direction for years, so they were ready to promote their free online courses , podcasts and videos , online store, and extensive Digital Doorway. Marjory Garrison at M+R shares more ideas for social media in “What to Do Right Now: Social Media.”
  • Old Salem launched Exploratorium, an “online field trip series for schools that have had to cancel due to Coronavirus.” These are five to ten-minute videos of Frank Vagnone (president and CEO) and Karen Walter (director of learning in place) along with Facebook Live walk-arounds within the historic district. Three episodes are already available on YouTube on pottery, clothing, and seeds. (Thanks for the tip, Sara!)
  • Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage is launching Virtual Visits, where “every Tuesday and Thursday to enjoy a new video or livestream featuring different parts of our site. From mansion tours to behind-the-glass discussions, our staff is here to bring history to your home.” The first episode will feature chief curator Marsha Mullin discussing the epidemics and illnesses during Jackson’s time on Facebook Live.
  • The New York Hall of Science developed Transmissions: Gone Viral, a digital interactive comic book with an educator guide. Although prompted by the West Nile virus, to explain “how scientists do research and to explore how humans and other animals are related through evolution and can share the same diseases” but it can also give children a comforting understanding of what’s happening now. Geralyn Abinader (creative producer) described its development on AAM’s blog in “Science Gone Viral.” What’s the history version of this?

At George Washington University, we have closed the campus through the end of the semester and are moving our classes online. Fortunately, it’s spring break and so I have time to figure out how to best use the online space for teaching. I’ve determined there will be lots of experimenting (anyone had success with VoiceThread?). But my teaching can’t ignore the impact of this pandemic on museums. I’ll have students practice presentations for virtual meetings in my project management course and in my community engagement course, I’ll ask them to make recommendations for responding to COVID-19 for their case study museums (how should your museum engage with the community in a situation like this?).

I don’t have this fully figured out and for historic sites, it’s especially complex because they all have different resources and are in different communities. I am doing lots of thinking about this, inspired by the Values of History and David Brook’s recent New York Times opinion, “Screw This Virus! We Had to Be Set Apart in Order to Feel Together.” If you’re finding other resources or exploring ideas, please share them in the comments below. We can all use the encouragement right now.

3 thoughts on “Historic Sites and COVID-19: What a Difference a Week Makes

  1. Mary Alexander

    Hillwood Museum and Gardens and Tudor Place here in Washington are promoting their gardens and dropping any entry fees. Nice community outreach in this time of distancing.


    1. Sara Bhatiaf

      That is a lovely example of community outreach. Alas, Hillwood decided yesterday to close their gardens as well as the museum.


  2. Michelle Zupan

    We aren’t really equipped technologically to provide digital field trips (the rural internet where we are is horrible. So we are having to be very nimble and use our strengths is different ways.
    Our Junior Board was just getting ready to visit sites that have applied to us for historic preservation grant funding. That got shut down. They will be doing Google Hangout Meets and Conference Calls with the sites. A new thing for some of our applicants from sites run by older volunteers.
    For education, we are data mining websites to find online content, virtual visits, library story times, puppet shows, art lessons, and lesson plans for all of those parents who are now finding themselves “homeschool parents”. We are populating our social media with those resources multiple times per day. We are also keeping the grounds of our historic site open. The buildings are closed, but people can wander all 256 acres and not worry about social distancing! And, a videographer friend of mine is working on a project for a magazine in a nearby town, that can no longer publish their spring golf edition, on outdoor sites worth visiting during the crisis. He brought out his drone and his video gear and will have it all up on our site and the magazine’s site by next week.
    Everything has changed. We must adapt.


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