Pandemic Stories: The Children’s Discovery Museum, the CV History Museum and the PS Art Museum Cope With the Closure—and Develop Reopening Plans
The coronavirus has made a lot of people realize theyâve been living life with a gross underappreciation for human connectionâincluding the ability to go to a museum and learn with others.
So â¦ how do museums serve the public when people canât physically connect?
We recently spoke to representatives of the Childrenâs Discovery Museum of the Desert, the Coachella Valley History Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum about how they are each handling the closureâand what attendees can expect when they finally reopen.
The Childrenâs Discovery Museum of the Desert wanted to keep reaching people during the shutdownâso it implemented a new online learning program called âDiscover at Home,â which can be accessed via the museumâs website, cdmod.org.
âNot having visitors anymore, we wanted to continue being a valuable community resource for children and families, especially now during these uncertain times,â said Gregoria Rodriguez, chief programs and exhibits officer at CDMOD. âWe created this series, and everything is offered completely virtually. Itâs on our website and social-media platforms, and now on YouTube at CDMOD. The series offers everything from conversation starters, to story times, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) lessons, cookingâand we even brought back our toddler program. We offer toddler programs year-round at the museum, and this is the first time we are offering it at no charge to the families, as well as all of the other programs.â
The museum is posting a weekly âConversation Starterâ on Mondays. One example: If you had 1 million marshmallows, what would you build?
âThey are simple questions for the families that they can talk about together, and get their creative juices flowing and ready for the rest of the programs during the week,â Rodriguez said. âThe rest of the curriculum is the stuff we do normally at the museum. Iâm hoping that families new to the museum or families who knew about us and have forgotten can see what we do year-roundâand when we reopen our doors, will be coming in to participate in person.â
The museumâs weekly video seriesâa new one is uploaded every Wednesday morningâdoes a great job of emulating what one may learn from a day of visiting the museum.
âThe videos are a collaboration of myself doing the story times; and Ashley (Whitley), our makerspace and art coordinator, doing some arts and crafts activities,â Rodriguez said. âKory (Lloyd), our early childhood-education coordinator, does a lot of the toddler classes. We provide a walk-through video, just in case the written-out steps we provide arenât clear enough.
âWe didnât want to provide Zoom classes right now, so as to not interfere with some families who have just started distance learning and may be having to share a computer.â
The idea of an online museum had been on the minds of some at the CDMOD prior to the outbreak, Rodriguez said.
âWeâve been getting really great feedback, and this has been something we have wanted to do anyway,â Rodriguez said. âThis was really the push that we needed to go online and reach more families this way. I donât anticipate our online presence ending at all, because Iâm still not really sure how people are going to react when everythingâs open. I hope they arenât hesitant to come in, because we are amping up our sanitary proceduresâbut if they are, we will still have the online lessons available.
âWeâre so interactive, and we really encourage hands-on play and exploration. We want to ensure that families feel safe when they come back to the museum.â
All of the programming is being offered for freeâand Rodriguez said she hopes the museum can rely on families and donors to continue to preserve this community asset.
âEven though we are offering everything for free, we do appreciate donations,â Rodriguez said. âWe normally rely on admissions, memberships, birthday parties, field trips, camps, etcetera. â¦ The museum has been a part of the community for over 30 years. We have some people on our staff who were museum children, came back with their kids to visit, and are now on our staff. To see that we are so involved with peopleâs lives and the communityâwe just canât wait to get these doors open again.â
Carol Scott, the chief executive officer/executive director of CDMOD, talked about how the closure has caused a serious financial strain.
âWe have really made an effort in the last few years to bring back new life into the museum,â Scott said. âAfter 20 years, things can get pretty stale. Last year, our attendance was almost 85,000. The museum doesnât have a huge donor base, so we have really worked on getting our revenue up. Our budget is about 85 percent earned revenueâattendance, memberships and people walking through the door. This (closure) is really hurtful for us, because weâre so dependent on earned revenue. Weâve been working on donations, writing grants, etcetera.â
The fact that the pandemic hit in mid-Marchâthe height of the busy seasonâwas especially painful, Scott said.
âMany businesses in the valley rely on the extra income that comes in during the season,â Scott said. âWe lost that time, and that usually is what helps us through the slow seasons. Our two major fundraisers, which happen in March and May, could not happen. When do the locusts fly in?
âWeâre here to serve the community; we just need to stay afloat so we can do that. Weâre doing the best we can at researching how other organizations and museums are addressing the issue. Nonprofits like us have an extra burdenâbecause weâre dependent on fundraising, and itâs a hard time to ask people for money.â
As for reopening, childrenâs museums face a significant challenge, as they rely on direct interactionâunlike, say, art museums.
âThe reason a childrenâs museum exists is to provide informal learning that is away from technology,â Scott said. âYou want kids to be doing things hands-on, creating and interacting with real things. Thatâs the value proposition of childrenâs museums across the countryâso now weâre all having to redefine that value. The childrenâs museum (concept) has been around for over 100 years, and has really focused on being the alternative learning space to what goes on in the classroom. As the classroom has to redefine their delivery, we have to redefine what weâre doing.
âWhen museums do start to reopen, we will have to drastically change our delivery, because we are very much an active, play-learning environment. All of the new sanitary requirements will have to be adhered to strictly, as now thereâs the fear of children having secondary infections. We are really looking at all of the consequences of this, both intended and unintended, and determining how to continue to be a valuable community asset.â
Scott understands that families may be hesitant to return to the physical museum at first, but said she and her staff have always made sanitation and safety a top priority.
âThe beauty of a childrenâs museum is that it is seen as a very safe place for family play and learning, and we are working to continue that perception going,â she said. âWe are very picky when it comes to cleaning the exhibits, and we are looking at other museums when they start to reopen to see what will work best.
âWe will border upon being incredibly picky and cautiousâas I take the job of protecting children very seriously.â
Gloria Franz, the second vice president of the Coachella Valley History Museumâs board of directors (cvhm.org), said the Indio museumâdedicated to âpreserving and sharing the history of the Coachella Valleyââwill not rush to reopen its doors.
âWe are working on cleaning and organizing our archives and also trying to do a lighting and fans project for the blacksmith shop,â Franz said. âMost of our volunteers are seniors, so theyâre on lockdown. Our one staff member comes in three days a week to check the campus, return calls, pick up the mail and pay bills.
âWeâre just getting the exhibits ready for when we reopenâand weâve decided, as a board, not to reopen until Oct. 1, because in the summer, weâre kind of quiet anyway. Weâre trying to prepare for a deep cleaning prior to opening, so that everybody can be assured that weâve cleaned as much as we can, and that we can make it as safe as we can for our guests and our volunteers.â
While the stay-at-home order has meant that the museum had to halt at least one large project, Franz said sheâs hopeful the closure wonât be too damaging to the museumâs finances.
âWe have a 15,000-square-foot piece of land thatâs still empty on our campus that weâve designed as a community drought-tolerant garden,â Franz said. âWe also are designing an outdoor railway exhibit, and bringing in an older Southern Pacific Railroad dining car that used to come through the Coachella Valley. So as soon as things open up, weâre going to go full force back into that project so weâll have something new to offer.
âOur annual fundraiser isnât until November, so weâre hoping that by November, we can still have our fundraiserâbecause it would put a little dent in our operation if it didnât happen.â
Franz and her team are saddened that the virus has affected events that were planned at the museum.
âWe get donations just here and thereâfor example, we have a family that supports our rose garden, and we also have reserves for all the basic costs,â Franz said. âBecause our staff is so lean, we donât have a huge overhead, and the city has been very supportive in handling our utilities, gardeners and any major repairs, because the city actually owns the property. What hurt us was that we had been working really hard for the last five or six years to make the campus become an events venue for weddings, retirement parties, quinceaÃ±eras and everything else. We were just starting to pick up momentum on thatâand weâve had to lose all of that progress. We have some events scheduled in the fall, so weâre hoping that thatâll continue.
âWe want people to know that our venue is available for private events. Itâs actually a gorgeous campusâso when you have a wedding there, the photos are just spectacular. We had a teacher get married in the school house and she loved it. It was just perfect.â
While other museums have pivoted toward an online experience, Franz said such a thing would not be a fit for the Coachella Valley History Museum.
âIf we did a video on the school house, itâs not the same as stepping into the building,â she said. âTo me, museums allow you to experience something in a way that a photo or a video just canât give you. I think things will return to people wanting to know the history and what has made the valley what it isâand thatâs what we provide.
âIâm not worried that this is going to change everything permanently. I think for the next six months to a year, itâs going to be slow, even when we do reopenâbut weâll be careful. We clean all the time, and weâre planning now to have enough disinfectant to be able to wipe everything down every single time somebody comes through. Weâre working to make sure that weâre prepared to clean in the best way we can for our volunteers and our guests.
âWe do work on donations, so weâd love to have people become members. Join our email list and like us on Facebook, and just kind of see whatâs happening. We had quite a few things lined up for the spring that didnât happen, such as a mole-tasting which was going to connect to our exhibit about Mexican art. Everythingâs online if anybody needs anything, and they can also just email the office, and weâll get it to the right person.â
Louis Grachos, the chief executive officer and executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, said closing the downtown Palm Springs museum, its Palm Desert satellite location and its Architecture and Design Center was in and of itself a challenging task.
âWe shut down on the 12th of March, based on the recommendations from the governor,â Grachos said. âWe were literally in the middle of our season, as January, February and March are the most active periods. There was a lot happening, and it took a lot of coordination to officially close the museum and figure out how to resolve all the issues regarding staff and furloughing.â
Grachos said the museum will not rush to reopenâand instead is taking things one day at a time.
âWe are keeping tabs on what the governor is advising on a daily basis,â he said. âWe are trying to form a strategy as to when we do get to reopenâwhat will things look like? We are going to have to understand how to manage visitors, respect mask laws and social distancing, and remove any opportunity that would entice people to congregate, such as the labels and introductory panels for exhibitions.â
Grachos said itâs likely the museum will stay closed until the fallâand that he had an epiphany, of sorts, during a recent visit to the Palm Springs Certified Farmersâ Market.
âThey have to accommodate distancing for people waiting in line,â Grachos said. âThe amount of physical space and the wrap-around was pretty remarkable, and I started to envision what that could look like at our museum. Itâs pretty daunting, because weâd need to have people stretched out to the sidewalk, which would require some tenting. Itâs going to be a logistical challenge.
âSafety is a huge priority, and I believe that will determine when we actually get to reopen. We are hoping to reopen sometime in fall, but âreopeningâ is going to mean something differentâlimited days, limited hours, etcetera. Itâs our hope that the community will want to visit museums in the same way theyâll want to go to the park. The consensus between me and other colleagues, from The Broad in Los Angeles to the MoMA in New York, is that we are expecting about one-third of our usual audience when we open doors again, and it will probably be that way for the next two years.â
Grachos said the idea of how museums operate will need to be rethought completely.
âIn my generation, there was a big emphasis on museums becoming cultural gathering places,â he said. âThe concept was to create a social environment with experiential encounters. Weâre really committed to that notion of museums being a cultural hubâand that is something that museum culture is going to have to rethink. The last 20 years have seen museums incorporating interactive designs that have enriched learning experiences. Observing distancing and the careful mediation of the number of people entering will shift museum programming.
âI wonât have a discussion with an artist and 25 people walking through the gallery anymore.â
Grachos said the Palm Springs Art Museum has been harmed by the economic collapse that has affected us all.
âThe day the doors closed is the day revenue stopped coming in,â he said. âWeâre relying on our traditional support base, but the stop of revenue is going to have a major impact on our museum. We are now going to have to downscale and streamline our organization, ask a smaller staff to take on more responsibilities, and rethink programming, cost-wise. We were going through a phase of being more resourceful with our permanent collection, including less tours and more investigation in growing and showcasing shows of our permanent collection. I see the Palm Springs Art Museum as being a great asset for the community in terms of exposure and education. We have to find a way to maintain a strengthened profile in the community to ride through this period.
âThose who love supporting art and culture do so on discretionary funds and confidence in the market. People who are very generous to cultural institutions are now a little more careful with their philanthropy, because of the stock market and economic impact of the virus. Frankly, weâre preparing for less support. People who support our museum also support other museums, so itâs going to make it very difficult for all museums to rely on philanthropy. The cityâs funding support is also going to be challenged because of the lack of revenue. We are not going to be able to rely on the government to support us, either, outside of the Payroll Protection Plan. Iâm bracing myself for a tough few years.â
The Palm Springs Art Museum is boosted its online outreach via its Palm Springs Art Museum at Home offerings (www.psmuseum.org/at-home).
âThat was the brainchild of our terrific curatorial team, Rochelle Steiner, and our educator, who pulled together a wonderful way to keep our audience, our community and our educators engaged,â Grachos said. âWeâve been hosting art-making workshops on Fridays, and parents have been enjoying including it as an added activity for their kids.
âWe also have been having online exhibitions. Weâve focused on Stephen Willard, and our great archiving collection, and weâve focused on the Sarkowsky sculpture park in Palm Desert. These online exhibitions have been getting a lot of good attention, and reminds our audience that we have this great resource. Rochelle is also working on spotlighting parts of our collection, which will also reveal, both locally and nationally, how varied our collection is.
âItâs been an important deal for us to stay connected to the community, and Iâm very pleased to say weâve had a great response. Sometimes a crisis helps you create a different way to keep communicating.â