On the Physical Reopening of Children’s Museums

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Children’s museums’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic was swift and responsible: to close their doors as soon as the threat posed to public health became clear. By March 19, all U.S. children’s museums and most around the world closed the doors to their physical facilities for the health and wellbeing of their visitors and staff. But their work did not stop. Indeed, children’s museums—known for their dedication to materials-based, hands-on learning and exploration—pivoted to provide these experiences in new and innovative ways.

More than one hundred days since the closing of the field’s physical facilities, policymakers are establishing reopening plans for a variety of public facilities. How children’s museums are considered in these plans varies widely across jurisdictions. In some, they are included in early phases of reopening, and in others, they’re very last. This variation and lack of clarity in local mandates has created an ambiguous and difficult operational landscape for children’s museums to chart out viable strategies for delivering on their missions to engage children and families in child-centered learning experiences.

Every children’s museum draws from professional practice, core values, and operational assets to define its own destiny in the face of the ongoing catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether that means working toward a physical reopening of their facilities for visitors, or committing to an extended physical closure, children’s museums are making informed decisions to ensure their own survival and, most importantly, to continue to serve their communities across the Four Dimensions of Children’s Museum Operations.

Children’s museums pursuing reopening of their physical facilities are…

  • Following reopening guidelines from their local governments (e.g., city, county, state).
  • Surveying visitors to determine if and how they should reopen. They are also surveying visitors after the visit to understand if they felt safe and enjoyed the experience.
  • Intensifying their already rigorous sanitation and hygiene practices to keep staff and visitors safe.
  • Often implementing capacity limits lower than existing mandates in the name of safety.
  • Exploring a variety of approaches to reopening their physical facilities, including:
    • Implementing timed-entry for visits.
    • Limiting access to only a portion of physical facilities (e.g., outdoors only, limited number of exhibits, one-way paths through museum).

Children’s museums committing to extended closure of their physical facilities are…

  • Investing in reimagining museum experiences and services for a post-pandemic reality.
  • Continuing to engage their communities in innovative ways, such as:
    • Creating new virtual programming, such as story times, virtual camps, and more.
    • Bringing high-quality, hands-on learning opportunities to families via learning and activity kits.
  • Investigating new ways to leverage their buildings to be of service to the larger needs of the community, by acting as sites for testing and blood drives, satellite food distribution, and childcare services.
  • Strengthening existing and establishing new relationships with community partners to support children and families through the challenges of the pandemic.

Whether or not their doors are open, children’s museums are supporting their communities.

  • The wider education landscape is in crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Children’s museums generally operate outside of the strictures of formal education systems. Many children’s museums are leveraging this flexibility to support their local educational systems (e.g., schools, Head Start, afterschool, childcare) as the 2020-2021 academic year starts. They are:
    • Developing academic curricula and virtual content.
    • Offering safe learning spaces for families in hybrid schooling plans that combine in-person and online instruction.
    • Providing teacher training.
    • Bridging the digital divide by providing connectivity for those without adequate internet access at home.
  • Children’s museums are and can be central partners for child and family-centered public health outreach related to the pandemic and beyond. Some museums are:
    • Providing trusted information about COVID-19.
    • Connecting caregivers with mental health resources for children and families to cope with this stressful time, as well as offering programming around social and emotional learning.

As every children’s museum makes its own decision to work toward physical reopening, or commits to an extended physical closure, it faces unique challenges depending on its location, government mandates, and operational history. Even still, children’s museums around the world are united in their commitment to the safety of children, and our shared vision of a world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop.

Help your local children’s museum continue to play its vital role in your community as an educational laboratory, community resource, and advocate by pledging your support today.

This document shares strategies that children’s museums are pursuing, not only to survive, but to continue to fulfill their missions in support of children and families. It provides field-wide messaging for children’s museums’ communications with the public and stakeholders. Questions? We’re here to help. Contact ACM@ChildrensMuseums.org

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.