Museums eye reopening as pandemic threats wane

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Area museums are beginning to consider plans for reopening over one year after closing doors to protect staff, volunteers and patrons from the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the lengthy closures, museums have not been completely void of activity as they find ways to safely connect with their communities and maintain facilities. 

A pickup truck drives past the Wilson Historical Museum Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. While closed since the onset of a pandemic, the museum is still selling gift shop items online and providing research assistance over the phone.

For the Greater Southwest Historical Museum, director Wes Hull wants to wait for guidance to be further relaxed before reopening. He said social distancing can be difficult in the museum and Military Memorial Museum but thinks visitors could return by this summer. 

“Of course it’s going to depend day-to-day on how it happens...we’re looking at late May, early June possibly trying to get open again,” Hull said on Thursday. 

The Wilson Historical Museum remains closed to foot traffic and director Melinda Taylor said active cases of COVID-19 must first fall by more than two-thirds before the facility considers reopening. 

“We are planning to reopen when Carter County total cases gets down to 50,” she said. According to the most recent data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, 160 active cases of COVID-19 were reported in the county on Wednesday.  

Some visitors will be able to visit the Wilson museum, however. Taylor said individuals and small family groups with masks are also being allowed into the facility by appointment. 

“Call the museum and leave a message and we will return the call. We are also doing research for clients and receive several calls a week,” she said. 

A sign on West Broadway Street directs motorists to the Greater Southwest Historical Museum on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. The Ardmore museum has been closed since March 13, 2020, to protect visitors and staff from the new coronavirus, according to museum director Wesley Hull.

Even the Greater Southwest Historical Museum has found ways to stay engaged with the community. A series of requests to use the museum’s nearby property, including the former Walker Stadium, for at least two Easter egg hunts gave the museum an opportunity to give back safely. 

“We had a lot of Easter eggs out here on the Saturday before Easter,” he said. “It’s for the kids, so we’d do anything to have them there.”  

The two area museums are among most Oklahoma museums that are considering or have started to reopen over one year after the pandemic shuttered doors across the world. Oklahoma Museum Association Executive Director Brenda Granger said she has heard of many affiliated museums beginning phased reopenings through the summer. 

“Of the few that remain closed, some of them have plans to open for the summer,” she said on Friday. 

As pandemic measures are gradually lifted, including a mask mandate in Ardmore on Tuesday, the hundreds of museums across Oklahoma must individually make decisions when and how to reopen to the public. 

Directors of museums in both Ardmore and Wilson each said volunteers have received COVID-19 vaccines. Granger said a variety of considerations are made and measures implemented like timed entry tickets to maintain visitor numbers at any given time and assist with contact tracing if necessary. 

“Every museum has their own criteria on when they wanted to open,” Granger said. “As COVID numbers go down and vaccines go up, hopefully the numbers that people allow in the museum will be increasing over time. Again, it’s all a matter of safety.” 

Museums have not been completely empty during the pandemic. Buildings must be cleaned, collections must be maintained and mail must be checked on a regular basis. Because of regular visits by Hull and his staff, major water damage was avoided at the Ardmore museum after a February winter storm. 

“On the north end there, basically where we got our outboard motors displayed, we probably vacuumed up and caught in buckets 80 to 100 gallons of water from melting snow,” said Hull. “We had to come over at different hours to empty those buckets.” 

The north end of the museum has a flat room and Hull believes the extreme cold weather – over a week of sub-freezing temperatures and lows bottoming out in the single digits – froze the drainage pipes and caused the snow melt to find its way down interior walls. 

Staff got creative by propping boards up on the walls to redirect falling water into buckets.  

The Greater Southwest Historical Museum on Thursday, April 19, 2020, 35 days after closing to visitors. Museum Director Admiral Wes Hull said only essential staff has entered the building since March 12 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“[I]t destroyed all of the ceiling tiles running down the walls. Of course my old-timers that used to serve here, they said all the years they served those walls always leaked,” said Hull. 

What could have been catastrophic damage to the aging facility and the nearby exhibit items was limited to damaged ceiling tiles and a burst irrigation pipe. Hull said the museum otherwise fared well. Granger said most other Oklahoma museums also fared well during the storms. 

The Oklahoma Museum Association serves as a major resource of information for museum boards and directors. Granger said the organization has been directing museums to various state and federal resources during the pandemic and since the winter storm. 

For example, a new portal for federal relief through the Small Business Administration provides grants for certain venues that include stage and performance areas and Granger said that some museums may actually qualify for the assistance. 

“That’s not just for museums, that’s for theaters and a variety of other things,” she said, adding that other funds expected soon include some from national arts and humanities endowments. 

“There’s still more federal money coming. The federal money has been very helpful to keep these museums afloat during this last year,” she said.