Exhibiting Flexibility: How Museums are dealing with Covid-19 Impacts

Exhibiting Flexibility: How Museums are dealing with Covid-19 Impacts

- in 2020 Editions, December 2020, Magazine, Parenting
Cleveland Natural History Museum Photo by Matt Crow

Face coverings. Wellness checks. Hand-washing stations. Your next visit to a beloved Cleveland museum may look very different in the future. As local institutions have welcomed back guests, they’ve found ways to balance health and safety requirements while still creating a dynamic visitor experience. Like many industries, museums are also facing the economic challenges created by a global pandemic.

Prioritizing Health & Safety

Museums were closed for just over three months because of state stay-at-home orders. Still, their directors spent that time collaborating to decide how they could safely reopen to guests. 

“I’ve never been in a city that has such an open communication and collaboration among the museum leadership,” says Kirsten Ellenbogen, president and CEO at Great Lakes Science Center. “We are talking together constantly. We’re sharing policies. We’re being very supportive.”

Great Lakes Science Center
Photo by Ken Blaze

That’s why you’ll notice many of the same welcome back protocols at Northeast Ohio museums. These include:

• Advance ticket purchases.

• Required face coverings.

• Temperature and wellness 


• Hand-washing or

   hand-sanitizing stations.

• Limited attendance.

• Enhanced cleaning and

   disinfecting procedures.

It’s not surprising that institutions known for their commitment to science education and healthy communities would want to make fact-based decisions. “(Visitors) say this is what they expect from a science museum,” says Meenakshi Sharma, chief strategy officer at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “There were one or two very vocal people who told us, ‘the mask is anticonstitutional,’ and we were very open to telling them we’ll be happy to refund their memberships.”

Guest feedback has been overwhelmingly positive regarding the new safety regulations. Some visitors even prefer the new guidelines, which limit crowds to encourage social distancing. 

“Our guests have told us they actually enjoy having fewer people in the museum,” says Hattie Kotz, director of marketing and development at the Children’s Museum of Cleveland. “It gives families more space to experience the exhibits.” 

Financial Strain

In addition to these guidelines, local museums have upgraded HVAC systems, purchased electrostatic misters to disinfect surfaces, ordered locally  made, custom-fit masks for staff, and provided customer service training for staff members. 

All this comes at a cost.

In June, the American Alliance of Museums surveyed its members and one-third of museums reported they were not confident they would survive until October 2021 without additional financial relief. Sixteen percent felt their organization was at risk of permanent closure.

Though many Cleveland-area museums have a tradition of responsible fiscal management, the effects of shutdowns and reduced guest traffic have taken a toll. To promote social distancing, museums are limiting the number of guests they allow to purchase tickets, but visitors are also reluctant to return to indoor spaces. While some days in July and August sold out, local museums report that guest traffic is down significantly compared to last year.

Great Lakes Science Center credited the crucial efforts of staff members and donors, as well as taxpayer support through the Paycheck Protection Program, with their ability to stay financially stable during this period.

 “We’ll end the year very close to breakeven. We’ll probably be down, at most, $100,000,” Ellenbogen says. “It really depends on how attendance is (in the upcoming weeks).”

Planning has been affected, as well. The Children’s Museum had some projects in the works that have been put off because of the shutdown and ongoing pandemic. 

“We’ve had to reallocate these funds toward our reopening efforts and COVID-19 relief,”  Kotz says. “Once the pandemic is over, we will be starting back at square one.”

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History may be in the best shape financially. The museum closed out its fiscal year in June and reported a 60 percent increase in donations from museum members compared to last year. They also exceeded their annual goal numbers.

“We are very, very grateful to the community for their support in the last quarter,” Sharma says.

Community Support

There are lots of ways to help local museums during this difficult time. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting in person yet, there are other unique opportunities to engage:

• Many museums are offering virtual learning opportunities. For example, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History offers a range of online classes on its website’s DiscoverE section. Learn about scientific topics and ask questions to experts

• Buy a membership. With the holidays upon us, parents, grandparents and other relatives can gift a membership and its perks. 

• Donations to the museum. With the financial strain of 2020 for museums and other nonprofit organizations, monetary donations can help with the continuation of a museum’s offerings. For example, donations to the Children’s Museum support their many education programs.

Whether you’ve visited a museum, renewed your membership or engaged online, local institutions emphasize how important it is for you to spread the word to your friends and family. 

“Our community is our best source of support and marketing,” Ellenbogen says, “So please speak up about your experience.”

Lisa Galek is a freelance writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in Northeast Ohio Parent, Refinery29, Northern Ohio Live, and on literally thousands of American Greetings cards. She lives in the suburbs of Cleveland with her husband and three very clever daughters.

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