This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.
By Patty Belmonte, Hands On Children’s Museum
Give us a snapshot of Hands On Children’s Museum in 2008.
In 2008, with 116,000 annual visitors in 11,000 square feet, Hands On was a strong but small museum experiencing over-capacity. We were located in a rented home on the state’s capital campus, but had recently won our bid for $8M in Public Facilities District funds to support the construction of a new, permanent museum on Olympia’s downtown waterfront. Our regional reputation was strong: about 25 percent of our visitors came from outside of Thurston county.
The museum was part of the East Bay Partnership along with the City of Olympia, Port of Olympia, and LOTT Cleanwater Alliance, all working together to revitalize a prominent Brownfield site and restore it to public use. We were planning a beautiful LEED Gold facility on a three-acre campus that included parking, an Outdoor Discovery Center, and the new East Bay Public Plaza featuring an interactive 250-foot naturalized stream fed with reclaimed water. Our new home, intended to be a model of green practices, was three times the size of the previous museum and planned to accommodate growth for fifteen years before additional expansion would be needed. Our campaign was set to launch in late 2008; we had already raised about 60 percent of our goal through public funds and initial major gifts.
How did the 2008 recession affect your community?
The Northwest’s economic make-up made it a bit more resilient than the rest of the nation, but times were not good. Larger banks and businesses that had been encouraging our move began to distance and hunker down—noting that social services really needed support during troubled times. There was a pervasive sense of gloom about the future; running a campaign for a new cultural institution was not the most important issue of the day.
How did it affect your museum?
Our organization was unprepared for the recession’s many consequences on campaign commitments and payment schedules. For example, our largest and lead gift from a well-respected Northwest foundation was reduced dramatically in the days leading up to their formal commitment. After initially suggesting a $1M pledge, they called to say that, in light of the times, they were revising their gift to half that amount. This significant, overnight reduction set the tone for the rest of the campaign. We realized that gifts would likely be less than our original fundraising plan had projected, and we immediately decided to phase the campaign. Phase I focused on the building, parking, and 80 percent of indoor exhibits; Phase II focused on the Outdoor Discovery Center, as well as facility enhancements discovered after opening, such as a larger coat and stroller room and additional parking lot lighting. Gift size wasn’t the only area impacted. We quickly learned to listen to our donors’ fears and worked out unusual payment options such as five-year pledge payments rather than three, a mix of cash and in-kind materials or services, and the option to make a smaller commitment early with permission to revisit the initial gift in a few years.
At the time, we were very disappointed to have to open the museum in phases. However, in retrospect, it gave us five years of new exhibits opening each year. This brought visitors back over and over again to see our progress. We did not experience the “sophomore slump” typical with new projects, and by year five we were overcrowded! The new facility nearly doubled attendance in two years and was up to 300,000 visitors in five years. By year seven, 2015, we leased a nearby parking lot, taken a lease option on two adjacent properties, and were in pre-planning for a future expansion.
How did you respond immediately (between 2007- 2009) to protect the viability of your museum? Or, to better serve audiences experiencing recession effects?
We were asked over and over again why we were pressing forward during a recession. Our honest replies were: first, our Capital Campus home was due to be demolished leaving us homeless. Second, a large sum of public funds would be lost if we didn’t break ground by a certain date.
It was the worst and best of times. As gift sizes shrunk, we started thinking about how else donors could participate, eventually leading to nearly $2M in donated goods and services. For example, we wanted a sustainable building, so we asked Weyerhaeuser if they would donate posts and beams for construction, along with some cash. They did. The museum features fir doors from Simpson Timber Co, siding from a timber family, and a gorgeous floor made of leftover end pieces from the region’s premier wood flooring installer. One company donated three trees, which skilled woodworkers turned into exhibits and furniture. The museum’s front entry desk was repurposed by a local casework company from a mistake made for another job. With great building and exhibit designs in hand, we were able to break them down into the parts and workmanship we needed and then approach the community with requests for specific help. Hundreds of in-kind donations, including landscaping, exhibit construction, artwork, carpet tiles, appliances, etc., became part of the new museum. Although it was challenging to manage it all, a key team of contractor, exhibit designer, board members, and senior staff led the effort. In the end, the fingerprints of our entire community are on this museum, making it aesthetically pleasing and unique, as well as a source of pride for all who contributed.
Did that experience inspire practices in place today?
We just used the same “community build” approach to renovate the Megan D, a vintage, buccaneer-style schooner languishing in the Port’s boneyard for several years. The same contractor who led the museum construction rallied seven of his retired carpenters (several who had worked on our building) to donate more than nine months and 1,000 hours to renovating the ship into a premier Outdoor Discovery Center exhibit. We also learned that we needed to maintain our decades-long commitment to access, even when times are good. Families, especially lower income working families, still need ways to affordably access the museum. We now have more than twenty different access programs, including an expanded EBT program, deeper military discounts, and $20 Access Memberships, and more. Our access programs serve more than a third of our annual visitors (about 120,000). We partnered with a major credit union to evolve a five-year naming gift to launch Hands On into the Museums for All initiative. They enjoy the benefits of naming, while we are able to fund a signature component of our access programming.
What did you learn from this experience/process that is applied to daily operations today and future planning?
This sobering and very challenging experience made us think more about the value of contingency planning, phasing, and multiple budget scenarios, and reinforced our commitment to flexibility. We listen to and work with our visitors and donors to shape the museum experience based on community needs. These relationships generate more support and positive feelings for the institution.
While the COVID-19 crisis could not have been predicted, what lessons learned from the 2008 crisis are helping you preserve your institution while navigating a path to reopening?
In mid-March, I ended what I thought was the final version of this interview by saying, “Right now I’m thinking…what if coronavirus spirals in the US and we are making contingency plans for that scary possibility.”
In fact, we had already begun the early stages of planning for a recession, focusing on our need to expand but thinking about it through a new, more realistic lens. Perhaps we could consider mini-expansions within the existing footprint of the building using existing space in creative new ways. On weekends, classrooms already become mini exhibit galleries. And perhaps we could invest in higher quality portable exhibits to make the most of those spaces. On holidays and school breaks, we already feature programming in the Outdoor Discovery Center to encourage more visitors to go outdoors. Based on early research on COVID-19 that suggests outdoor environments are a safer than indoor ones, we are now thinking a lot about how to further extend outdoor learning experiences. Can we increase our footprint by using some of our entry plaza and adjacent public plaza as programming space? Can we activate low-use areas in new ways? One of our operating models anticipates more small-group and private-play visitation times. Extending operating hours into the evenings would provide us with more hours to work with in developing multiple visit options, including ones that accommodate visitors who feel safer in more personal settings.
In mid-March, as we moved into COVID-19 crisis planning, we drew on previous positive experiences with in-kind partnerships. For example, after construction we had developed an in-kind sponsorship with our HVAC company saving $13K annually in HVAC maintenance. Knowing that in the age of COVID-19, visitors expect not only cleaner buildings and exhibits, but also cleaner air, we recently secured a major in-kind sponsor to clean our duct work, saving the organization $25,000. Other new or expanded partnerships have allowed us to add steam-cleaning bathrooms, high ceiling area dusting, and carpet cleaning. As we considered our facility through the eyes of the post-COVID-19 visitor, we recently secured power washing for all of our outdoor exhibits, buildings, and the parking lot so that everything will be cleaned, re-stained or repainted prior to reopening.
Leading through the recession and now through COVID-19 challenges us in ways we could not have even imagined in February. Growing pains feel especially acute when you are in the middle of them. On really difficult days, I find myself comparing this 2020 pandemic period to 2008, only to conclude it was somehow easier or better then. Yet, I know that my perspective has changed over time and with accumulating experience. In 2008, I was in complete despair managing a high-profile, huge public project under extreme financial constraints. What came out of those dark days were new ways of solving problems and creating innovative operating models that led to long-term benefits for our organization. It is that experience that gives me the most hope as we muddle our way through surviving this pandemic. I find myself asking, what are you learning from this journey that will help you tomorrow?
Patty Belmonte is CEO of Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington.