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Historic choices: Museums struggle with decisions to reopen amid pandemic

Michael D. Smith
msmith@ardmoreite.com
A sign on West Broadway Street directs motorists to the Greater Southwest Historical Museum on Friday. The Ardmore museum has been closed since March 13 to protect visitors and staff from the new coronavirus, according to museum director Wesley Hull.

As the pandemic stretches into a seventh month in Oklahoma, museum directors across the state are wrestling with difficult decisions, mainly on how or when to reopen. The stewards of history must consider the safety of staff, patrons, artifacts and communities. 

And like everyone else, they must also consider their budgets.

Brenda Granger, executive director of the Oklahoma Museums Association, said about half of member museums have reopened after pandemic closures but admits COVID-19 continues to take a toll on the industry.

“They’re doing everything they can and they’re being very, very innovative and staying relevant. But the problem is that it is definitely a difficult circumstance facing museums with the financial resources of it all,” Granger said on Thursday.

PAYING THE BILLS

Not all museums are funded the same, according to Granger. Many rely on donations, ticket sales, gift shop revenues, foundation investments, endowments and grants to stay afloat. While the pandemic has made some federal aid dollars available for museums, it has also dried up other income.

Greater Southwest Historical Museum Director Wesley Hull said donations continue to trickle in despite closing in March, but the main source of the museum’s revenue comes from the Southwest Historical Foundation. 

“We have the foundation. That’s the only thing that saved us,” Hull said on Wednesday.

According to 2018 tax forms, the most recent available, annual expenses for the museum were more than $300,000 with nearly all of that money coming from the foundation.

Money for the current year has already been allocated and Hull is not too worried about the museum's immediate future. What next year will look like is a different story considering next year's funding has not yet been set.

PANDEMIC EFFECTS ON MUSEUMS

The pandemic did result in monetary help for businesses like museums, according to Granger. A $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package approved by Congress early in the pandemic provided aid to businesses to help keep paychecks going to paid staff.

Granger said she has heard of some museums shedding staff during the pandemic, but much of the federal aid helped keep the relatively few paid employees in Oklahoma museums on staff. She said at least one museum in Stillwater has moved to a virtual arena until the end of the year, when it is expected to close for good.

She is not sure of the exact circumstances but cannot help think it was due, at least in part, to the hardships brought on by the pandemic. That is the only Oklahoma museum she is aware of that is expected to close during the pandemic.

The American Alliance of Museums surveyed 750 museum directors across the country over the summer and released its results in July that estimated one out of every three museums nationwide could close permanently due to the pandemic.

Hull said two days after he read the results of the AAM survey, he learned a railroad museum in Denison, Texas, was struggling to keep its doors open after revenue dried up.

“When you look at that, that is a major impact to our society,” he said. 

Granger does not believe the nationwide survey reflects the situation in Oklahoma but knows the pandemic is creating a stressful situation for some, especially those that rely on volunteers. Aside from fewer visitor donations and gift shop sales, fundraising efforts like galas or auctions cannot be held. Many facilities cannot rent out space for private events either.

ECONOMIC ENGINES

While many may consider museums a sleepy aspect of a community where families can enjoy a quiet afternoon wandering through exhibits at a leisurely pace, Granger said museums actually play a major role in the state’s economy.

“Museums contribute approximately half a billion dollars to the Oklahoma economy every year, so we’re economic engines, too,” she said. 

Hull agrees. Before the pandemic, he was used to seeing a variety of states and countries in the museum’s guestbook and knows the museum was likely only one stop during a traveler’s visit to Ardmore. 

“If they’re going down (Interstate) 35 and they stop at the museum, they’re probably going to fill up with gasoline. They’re going to stop and get them a burger and shake somewhere, so it’s contributing to the economy of Ardmore,” he said.

Some drivers of this economic engine in Carter County, big and small, have made similar decisions to temporarily close. The Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum and Wilson Historical Museum each had statements on their websites this week saying the facilities remain closed.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO REOPEN?

For Hull, trying to reopen under guidelines from health experts and the state museum association would mean increased costs. Extra cleaning supplies for more sanitization efforts, barriers for the reception desk and a thermometer for temperature checks all mean additional costs for an already lean budget.

“It would cost us a considerable amount of revenue to even prepare to open,” Hull said.

But Granger said more than half of the 500 museums across Oklahoma have managed to find ways to reopen, especially since late May. Many of these museums have implemented capacity limits to prevent large outbreaks and ticket policies to help with contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.

But for now, Granger has not heard about any problems. “We have had no reports, at least at the OMA office, of any COVID outbreaks at any museum,” she said.

Not only do museum directors need to keep staff and visitors safe, but they must also consider their collections. For museums like Greater Southwest Historical Museum, rope lines meant to keep visitors from touching items must be considered while disinfecting, according to Hull.

Other museums across the state have to consider exhibits that are meant to be touched by visitors.

“A lot of museums now for the last 10 years have worked so hard to be hands-on and touchable, which you can't really do that anymore,” Granger said.

PRAIRIE CHRISTMAS CANCELLED

One popular event that the Greater Southwest Historical Museum holds every year is the Prairie Christmas, when schools from across the state are invited to visit the museum for a Christmas-themed day of stories and crafts with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.

Planning normally begins in September, even during a pandemic. Hull said recent phone calls to schools that have taken part in the past taught him that schools have cancelled field trips. As a result, the Prairie Christmas event is not expected to be held for the first time in about two decades.

As museum directors weigh the options between community benefits and health concerns, Hull said he is mostly thinking about his staff. He knows his volunteers are older and at risk of complications if they were to catch the new coronavirus.

So for now, the museum will remain closed.

“I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to reopen,” Hull said.