How Planting Tomatoes Can Suggest How Museums and Sites Can Respond to COVID-19

Each year I plant a few tomato plants to keep a ready-supply of heirloom varieties at home.

It struck me as I thought about putting tomatoes into the garden. During the COVID-19 quarantine, where would I buy them? My local nurseries are closed and I can’t order them for pickup or delivery through their websites. I may have to buy them from nurseries in Michigan and Alabama–hundreds of miles away. That seems crazy but in some ways it mimics what’s happening at house museums and historic sites across the country as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.

Museums and historic sites are responding to the COVID-19 quarantine in many ways that can seem random, but I’m starting to notice a pattern that suggests there’s an evolution of thought, just as I’m experiencing an evolution of thought about growing tomatoes.

The responses of house museums and historic sites to the coronavirus pandemic can be organized by an evolution of thought.

Most basic is an immediate focused response to the fear of financial catastrophe due to lost admissions, retail sales, and site rentals. They seek to answer, “What can we stop doing?” and “How can we raise money quick?” The typical responses are appeals for financial support, budget cuts across the board, a general stopping of all projects and collections acquisitions, and staff is laid furloughed or laid off. Teleworking is tolerated but not encouraged. Mission, vision, values, and planning put on hold. Decisions focus on shutting things down rapidly. Leadership is fixing the leaks in a seemingly sinking ship.

Second is an effort to adapt activities that mimic life before the pandemic. They seek to answer, “What can we create?” If the site provided guided tours, they’ll create an online version. If the museum held exhibitions, they created online versions. A lecture offered in an auditorium is now presented in Zoom. Research in the collections moves from storage to online databases. Collections acquisitions focus on documenting COVID-19. Promotion emphasizes social media. Telework is acceptable and some policies and practices are adopted that will allow it to continue in the future under certain conditions. Mission, vision, values, and plans are applied in new ways. Decisions focus on reassigning resources to new priorities. It moves analog experiences to digital platforms temporarily, assuming that operations will return to pre-COVID life in a few months. Leadership is sailing a ship through a storm.

Finally, developing new types of activities and programs that respond to the needs, fears, and expectations of the public. They seek to answer, “What are we being called to do?” Hands-on activities become a lower priority.  Small group conversations and dialogue-based programs will need to ensure physical distancing. Exhibitions, lectures, and programs become multi-media experiences, move outdoors, or into the community.  Online collections databases provide deeper descriptions with multiple views of an object to better accommodate research, not simply serve as finding aids. Telework is supported through technology and policies are widely adopted. Mission, vision, values, and plans revised. Decisions are surgical and made with overall intention. There’s a recognition that the impact of the pandemic will resonate for years, not months, and they’re figuring out how to pivot.  Leadership is about taking the ship apart and building a new one that’s better suited for the future.

At this point, I haven’t concluded which response is best because each organization is different and needs to figure its own way forward. There’s certainly more to surviving this pandemic that learning how to hold a Zoom meeting and promoting #GivingTuesday. I am finding that those house museums and historic sites that had developed their online capacities (at all levels), created an organizational culture of learning (rather than hierarchy), and have strong relationships with their local community (rather than tourists) seem less panicked and more likely to succeed. Just like the nurseries, those that are able to sell plants online are still able to operate and perhaps even attract new visitors, donors, and supporters. Maybe I shouldn’t try to plant tomatoes this year and instead use canned or figure out how to better use what I have (the mint and sage are growing into bushes).

What factors have you noticed that are helping house museums and historic sites succeed? I’m not looking for a new social media campaign or clever virtual tour, but organizational strategies or ways of thinking that are making a fundamental difference. What qualities in leadership and management do we need to get us through a pandemic?

2 thoughts on “How Planting Tomatoes Can Suggest How Museums and Sites Can Respond to COVID-19

  1. Richard Layman

    Thank you for breaking this down:

    online capacities (at all levels), created an organizational culture of learning (rather than hierarchy), and have strong relationships with their local community.

    I’ve noticed these elements, but hadn’t put it together so succinctly.

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  2. Trevor Jones

    Max,
    I like your idea of these stages, but I think it is more like dealing with stages of grief than it is an evolution — we are moving from fixing the leaks to building a new ship and back on a daily basis. I feel it is essential to have a vision for future offerings while maintaining maxiumum flexbility for how we’ll acheive it. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this is one of the greatest opportunities we’ll ever have to end programs that were not working and try new things. It is terrifying and exciting at the same time.

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