Children play at Children's Museum Houston

Children’s Museums Surviving the Pandemic: Insights from Three Leaders

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This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Peter Olson

“How are we going to survive?” was the first question many children’s museums faced in March.  While many strategies have been developed, it remains an open question. The coronavirus pandemic is still affecting all aspects of society, and children are experiencing upended lives. With many museums’ doors still closed, children’s museums are innovating safe ways to be of service to their audience while protecting staff and fighting for institutional survival. It’s not an overstatement to say we are living through an unprecedented juncture, one at which every children’s museum in the U.S. initially closed to visitors in mid-March, the duration of the pandemic is unknown, and it remains unclear how post-virus attitudes will affect hands-on museums. 

In this context, in March, I spoke with three children’s museum leaders to learn about their real-time efforts to keep their museums sustainable through the pandemic. Stephanie Hill Wilchfort, president and CEO, Brooklyn Children’s Museum; Tanya Durand, executive director, Greentrike (Children’s Museum of Tacoma); and Tammie Kahn, executive director, Children’s Museum Houston, all shared strategies and tactics for surviving closure, preparing to reopen, and re-imagining missions and adapted operations. 

In late June, I checked in again with all three regarding specific aspects of their reopening progress. These conversations often spoke to the dire realities of these tough times, but they all shared the hope that the children’s museums field will reemerge as relevant, vital resources for children, families, and communities after the pandemic.

When did you first start grappling with the effects of pandemic?

WILCHFORT: Even though New York was not in lockdown yet, we started seeing an unexpected decline in visitation the first weekend in March. The following week we started grappling with closing. This wasn’t our first emergency health situation. We dealt with similar issues during a measles outbreak earlier in 2019, so we had developed some messaging and protocols on how to communicate. But this time we had to invent a framework for helping determine when we should close. To start, we created a basic four-point guideline. We would close: 

  1. If the governments ask us to close;
  2. If fewer than five staff members are able to report to duty to run the museum;
  3. If an employee reports serious and contagious illness; or
  4. If a visitor reports serious and contagious illness. 

We did not originally anticipate two other considerations. The first was that public health experts were clear that closure of spaces like ours could help mitigate the potential crisis, and that public sentiment shifted to feeling like museums should close. On March 12, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History closed. We closed on Saturday, March 14. Second, at some point, with very few visitors and almost no revenue, staffing the museum was costing substantially more than we were earning. Does it make financial sense to run the museum when no one is coming? We later amended our closure framework to take public health experts into account, and to include an additional decision point related to non-attendance.

To determine when to reopen, we take our cues from New York City and New York State. We’ve been looking at how museums in other countries have handled this, and it seems like there is likely to be a twelve-week timeline for sheltering in place. Based on that, we initially assumed a July 1 reopening date. (That date was later moved to October 1.) Even if the world returns halfway to normal by then, our institutions may still be unable to reopen, either because large crowds will still be discouraged, or because we have had to contract so substantially that ramping up will take some time. We also know that, even when we do reopen, there will likely be a period of lower attendance and revenue.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
New York City was initially one of the hardest hit COVID-19 areas in the country.  What’s the mood in your city today?  What do people want from a children’s museum now?


WILCHFORT: The mood is cautiously optimistic as the impact of the disease seems to be waning locally. Recently, we were heartened by the return of 600 survey responses from our visitors in two days. People seem to be willing to imagine coming back in the fall with safety measures in place.

DURAND: Our Pacific Northwest CEO group had been talking about the possibility of closure since mid-February. Examining models and various scenarios, we had been working on how to stay open as long as possible, right up to the day before everyone closed. What we thought was right one day, wasn’t right the next day. In a twelve-hour span, the conversation transitioned from “let’s be that place for families that is safe, clean, and has resources” into “it’s not socially responsible to be a place to gather.” On March 12 we closed our outreach program and on Friday, March 13, we closed the museum. Our childcare center stayed open until March 17, when a parent called us to report their child had symptoms. She never was tested, but we decided to close anyway for at least two weeks. Then another family called to inform us that their child also had symptoms. We’ll reopen the museum when it’s safe to do it. We’re not in a red-hot hurry.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
In response to overwhelming community need, the museum reopened some day camps and its childcare center.  What has been community response to these shifts? Have other needs emerged that you’re dealing with or planning to?

DURAND: We are now coordinating an extension of the day camps into the summer months, and are poised to lean into the needs that fall may bring. The community’s response is one of gratitude and encouragement.

KAHN: We closed the museum to the public on March 16 and initially hoped to reopen in July. (The museum reopened at limited capacity in June). When visitors walk through our doors again, we know they’ll have much higher expectations than previously. With children out of school for so long, parents will be looking for educational, enriching resources. Our educators will be working in the galleries providing more personalized, content-rich experiences. We’re still going to have fun, but we’re going to provide value where and when it’s most needed.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
Children’s Museum Houston (CMH) jumped out early in the production and dissemination of video and online learning programs. How have these digital offerings been received? What have you learned that may shape future work in this area?


KAHN: Our videos have had 2.8 million views. Our eblast initially had 70,000 subscribers; it’s now down to about 68,000. As far as content, we know that reading programs are oversaturated. Keeping at least digital connections with children is good for their mental health, but are they learning their ABCs? We just don’t know yet. Our videos have produced some museum “stars”—kids come in and ask for educators by name.

Millennial audiences approach life differently. They are harder to reach and less interested in the physical interactions with the museum. To continue to reach them, be ready to go digital. That said, we also know there are still digital deserts in Houston’s lower income communities. We have learned from local educators that only 42 percent of students logged on 1x/week to all the online learning programs the schools have been pumping out. School administrators figure they have lost contact with about 50 percent of students. Social justice needs to shape mission-directed museum work: if we can’t reach them, how can we serve them?
How are you remaining vital to your audience and your community while closed?

DURAND: As our community called upon us to spread the mission to honor children and champion play in diverse ways, last fall, our organization made an identity shift and changed its name to “Greentrike.” We’ll always operate a great children’s museum and, in fact, we’re opening a satellite. But we will also be an advocate, a disrupter, an educator, and a partner in ways that go far beyond typical museum operations. In addition to the museum and our emerging satellite, we operate a childcare center and a school. We’re leading a community-wide effort to explicitly brand our community as child-centered. Partnering with schools, the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, and the parks department, Greentrike has been tasked with coordinating the effort to provide childcare for children of emergency personnel, healthcare professionals, and others on the frontlines.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
Based on your experiences in the past four months, do you see the mission of Greentrike evolving in any specific ways?

DURAND: Yes. For example, Greentrike is partnering with another agency to lead a conversation about ending the childcare crisis in our community.

Our nimbleness and our lack of bureaucratic structure enable us to advocate pretty strongly for important issues as they come up. We can “go to bat” for partners who lack the resources or the capacity to do so on their own.

WILCHFORT: We are all about in-person, sensory, physical programming and object-based learning. We do not have a robust digital team nor many resources in this area. So we have convened a cross-department team with staff from marketing, programming, exhibits, and live animal care, and started to create units of digital outreach programming in three big areas: Amazing Animals, which will showcase some of the museum’s animals in a digital format; Earth Science, based on content we’ve developed for a new earth science garden to be opened in a few years; and Cultural Festivals, creating content that brings in our partners, with activities, recipes, and dancing that normally happen at our in-person festivals. We hope that through this process we will build competencies around digital resources and new ways of presenting content that will continue after the immediate pressing need is over.

KAHN: We transformed our website to offer fun and engaging at-home learning opportunities for families. We provide both livestream broadcasting along with a database of school-related, curriculum-based activities and videos created by our staff. We launched this while we still had access to the museum, but then educators began “broadcasting” from their homes. Their children and pets starred in some of the programs. It’s all about connecting our audience with our stars—our educators—now that classrooms are closed.

What are the top issues you’re struggling with because of the pandemic? 

WILCHFORT: We realized right away that there would be no work for most of our part-time floor staff in a closed museum. We had to make the heartbreaking decision to lay them off. We called two staff meetings, both of which I led, on two separate days, and all staff completed a Google form indicating which meeting they could attend to ensure that no more than thirty-five people were in the room for each meeting. When staff arrived at the museum, we kept everyone at least six feet apart. We tried to make it as safe as possible while recognizing that a level of respect needs to be afforded to them. We also reduced hours and salaries by 20 percent for all full-time staff, but have made a commitment to retain as many people as possible, protecting their healthcare benefits throughout this process.

From left to right: Tanya Durand, Greentrike; Tammie Kahn, Children’s Museum Houston; Stephanie Wilchfort, Brooklyn Children’s Museum

Our board engaged in conversations about our annual fundraiser benefit scheduled for May 27. The initial idea was to do something like a Zoom party as an engagement and cultivation event as much as a fundraiser. The reality is that in this moment, children’s museums are not at the forefront of people’s needs. When emergency workers are on the frontlines, often working without proper PPE, it does not seem like the right time for us to fundraise aggressively. It’s so hard to say this might not be our time, when we love our organizations so much. However, it is important we advocate with donors and public funders in ways that aren’t tone deaf to what is happening around our city and country. Because we have amazing city support, wonderful trustees, a robust foundation community in New York, as well as local support for a future arts and culture stimulus, I am cautiously optimistic about our future.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
Has your temporarily restrained
approach to fundraising changed in the past few months?  Where are you now with regards to raising money for core operations or special projects?

WILCHFORT: We elected not to do the May 27 event, but instead held a virtual board gathering and unveiled designs for our science garden exhibit that’s in development. Board members still gave money. We have reengaged in fundraising. Now that we’re reopening, donors are coming back. Two months ago, none of us understood how long this would last. Now we have a better sense of defining our response and a more refined understanding of where our organization falls: cultural organizations are more relevant than ever in providing safe ways to gather for learning experiences. Parents and children are fraying at the edges. We’re all asked to play roles we never expected to play, working full-time, and limiting outside contact. It’s a real crisis, and parents are anxious. Our fundraising aligns with meeting the needs in our community today.   

DURAND: I worry about people’s livelihoods. We reduced our team from sixty-nine to twenty-two. On average, the furloughed team members received two weeks paid leave, and it’s our intention to continue to pay for their healthcare benefits during the furlough. Our board cares deeply about our staff and is looking at the long game.

Like all of my colleagues I’m worried about money. We’ll probably have to dip into our line of credit. Our museum admission is by donation, so we don’t rely on the gate income that other museums do—a blessing in disguise in times like these. We actually save money by being closed. Our financial forecast is that we’ll end our fiscal year with a $150,000 shortfall for the first two and a half months (mid-March through May). This is not great news, but it certainly could be worse, and I feel for colleagues facing deeper deficits.

KAHN: We’re in the middle of complex financial modeling, including significantly dampening predictions for the coming eighteen months. For years we’ve studied worst case scenarios, but this crisis rivals our worst nightmare. We initially laid off 150 part-time staff and gave them two weeks’ severance to help bridge them to unemployment benefits. Many of this team live in families all dependent on part-time employment. Locally, massive layoffs due to required business closures have been devastating. For decades, Texas has attracted people who came here willing to work two or three jobs to give their kids a chance at the American Dream. We are proud to hire people from the demographics we serve. But we never planned on extended, universal unemployment for our entire region. And our biggest economic engine is still the energy business, which has hit several lowest-ever markers in the past few weeks. There’s a sea change taking hold in that industry as well.

Federal payroll assistance does not cover part-time employees. Normally we have plenty of cash on hand, even a cash reserve in our endowment. However, our shut down eliminated spring break and the start of our summer peak attendance. We are predicting an overall loss of $500,000 at the end of our 2020 fiscal year (June 30), even with short term federal relief for full-time staff. Our endowment value is at its lowest in ten years. We were fortunate to be running a surplus before the crisis, and we have been authorized to consider spending up to $1 million from our reserve fund including cash held in our endowment.     

But our museum is people-dependent. Our mission model is about transforming communities through innovative, child-centered learning. Our level of community engagement requires a lot of fully engaged talented people. Our efforts to have collective impact and work collaboratively are taking a major hit. Most of our community-based partners are shut down, libraries are closed, schools may not open until fall, and people are isolated. Our digital efforts are producing high contact numbers, but we are just beginning to learn how to build robust digital relationships. We are already evaluating learning outcomes from these efforts, but the evidence will require we rethink the new nature of the value that we bring.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
As staff were gradually brought back to work in the museum, what new trainings did they need to meet today’s audience needs (safety standards, audience expectations, etc.)?


KAHN: Our staff training is not much different than before. The museum visit was re-structured as an “Epic Adventure” with a clearly mapped entrance/exit that paces the visit and allows social distancing. Each visitor receives an Epic Adventure bag that contains 80 percent of the materials need for the adventure, and which they can take home. Normally, the museum is full of frontline staff, but now, only our full-time educators are working in the galleries.
JUNE FOLLOWUP:
What are you working on now that you are most excited about?

WILCHFORT: Our 20,000-square-foot, outdoor Earth Science Garden, a big capital project in partnership with the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, and by far our most exciting large-scale project. While it won’t come to fruition for a couple of years, it’s going to change the organization. The narrative for the eight exhibit areas is rooted in the history of Brooklyn and how it got its slopes and heights.
How do you see your organization coming out of the shutdown? Are you expecting and planning for any fundamental changes to your audience and how you serve them?

WILCHFORT:  If there’s one thing I’d say to other children’s museums in this moment, you may think you should put the brakes on big capital projects, but don’t. One, it’s good for the institution. When we do come out of this, people will need these new projects and programs. Two, content development, construction, and fabrication can be part of a stimulus program. If we keep the capital projects going, we’re creating jobs. If we stop these big projects, we won’t have that ability. It’s essential that everyone keep their capital and major exhibit work moving.

KAHN: We’ll be reducing our hours and days of operation, further cutting personnel expenses. However, we will increase the depth of educational experiences for visitors. Even before the pandemic, this generation of caregivers tend to display a heightened level of control over all aspects of their child’s safety, as well as the selection of environments and experiences to which their child is exposed. As a public venue designed for young children, we will be subjected to higher cleanliness and safety expectations than ever in the coming “post-COVID” era. As a nation, we have spent spring 2020 retraining our citizenry to assume new behaviors that are not in sync with our pre-pandemic missions or business models.

JUNE FOLLOWUP:
Since you have reopened, what are some of the biggest changes and challenges related to health/safety standards compliance?


KAHN: Visitors’ temperatures are scanned at the door. Masks are required for everyone age two and older–no mask, no admission. (Masks are sold in the museum store for $3.95!) Ever since Sandy Hook, the museum has posted a guard at the door. A typical compliance issue is visitors pulling their masks off their nose once they’re inside. Visitors who do so are reminded by staff, and if they still don’t comply, the guard will ask them to leave. Only one family so far has requested a membership refund over the masks rule.

Like most reopened museums, we have initiated an aggressive cleaning program, and have spent $400,000 on upgrades and cleaning supplies (HEPA filters, UV lights, cleaning products, etc.). Our lobby’s former Yogurt Snack Bar is now a Hand Sanitizer Bar.

A separate but related issue involves staff. Their temperatures are taken daily, and masks must be worn in the museum at all times. To date, one staff member tested experienced COVID-19 symptoms after returning from New York; five of the remaining hundred employees were believed to have been exposed to the virus so were sent home out of caution. Each of these employees required individual fourteen-day quarantines. It has been difficult to lose staff due to exposure from families and friends, while still paying full-time salaries for people who are in quarantine.
JUNE FOLLOWUP:
Do you think adjustments to the children’s museum experience are temporary or permanent? What is your level of optimism for children’s museums to continue to be relevant with hands-on, in-person learning?


DURAND: Children need to play to learn, and they need to play with others to gain social skills. That won’t change. We are waiting longer to reopen because I don’t think it’s right to ask a child to come back to a beloved familiar environment that we designed specifically to engage them in play, and now ask them to engage in different and difficult-to-explain ways. It does not set the child, or the family, up for success. Our field needs to advocate even more strongly that play is the right of children. We need to keep them and their families safe, but we need to push for a return to the rights of childhood as soon as we can.

DURAND: This is a basic operational and philosophical question that the entire museum field is considering. Greentrike will advocate for what families need. Childcare and access to the fundamentals will be important. The museum, I think, will experience a slow ramp back up to “business as usual,” whatever “usual” will mean at that time. We are working with our colleague museums to do a combined launch with consistent messaging. This obviously impacts budget: we are losing most earned income for almost five months. We are applying for CARES support and will continue to raise funds. 

As far as changes to the children’s museum audience, everyone will be enhancing their cleaning and safety protocols and thinking about social distancing. But, since our gallery experiences are hands-on, interactive, and often involve close contact with other visitors, these changes will certainly impact the way we serve our audience and it will certainly feel different.

For children’s museums in general, I don’t think it’s a terminal situation, but a hibernation. My hope is that there won’t be a decreased demand for children’s museums. I don’t anticipate a time when we say we shouldn’t have safe, rewarding, enriching places for children to go. The wake up, however, is going to be fascinating. I don’t know how extensive the hangover will be for families who do not want to return to public places. We need to watch our friends across the ocean, where there is a chance for a second wave, and how they handle it. This edition of Hand to Hand is almost like a time capsule, but one you’re not sure what to put in, because everything is changing on a daily basis.

Peter Olson is currently the owner of Peter Olson Museum Planning, LLC, and is the museum project director of the emerging Region 5 Children’s Museum in North Central Minnesota. Peter has served as the founding executive director at Knock Knock Children’s Museum and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, and as the director of exhibits at Minnesota Children’s Museum.

CHILDREN’S MUSEUM HOUSTON: THE STORY CONTINUES

In a year filled with rapidly changing responses to a still fluid environment, Children’s Museum Houston just announced that it will launch All-Time Access, an online initiative to enhance distance learning. This program will be open to families all over the world from an all-time digital landscape. As kids return to school, in whatever configuration that may be, the museum will take a break beginning August 31 to focus on All-Time Access meeting children and their families where they are —at school, at home, at play. The museum will reopen once again as soon as it is feasible.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”