Staying Out Front (While Behind-the-Scenes Exhibit Work Goes on)

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This article is part of the “Exhibit Planning in 2020: Thinking Now about Where We Hope to Be in the Future” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

Sharon Vegh Williams, North Country Children’s Museum

Like museums across the U.S., attendance at North Country Children’s Museum trickled, then came to a halt when we closed our doors to visitors on March 16, 2020. The outlook was bleak. How long could our newly opened—and now newly shut—museum remain viable while continuing to plan for the future?

Facing a crisis no amount of planning could have predicted, a few things were in our favor. Namely, we had raised almost all of our building, construction, and exhibits costs before we opened in 2018. Our only debt is a modest mortgage, and our overhead is low: internet, phone, and electricity are donated by local utility providers. In addition, as a small startup, we have flexibility to shift staff roles and responsibilities quickly. During the closure, I worked to keep our talented education team on payroll. With exhibits unavailable, we leveraged grants and donations to pivot our focus to online, lending, and outdoor programming.

Two days after the closure, our education team started creating STEAM videos and challenges on the museum’s social media sites. We ran daily activities on a YouTube channel. In June and July, our science educator developed take-home kits, available for one week and free for members, with all materials provided. Each kit contained a few related projects on science themes ranging from bees, pollinator seeds, and homemade honey lollipops, to learning about radiation by making UV reactive bracelets, to extracting your own DNA. The kits were booked throughout the summer. Since reopening to visitors, we have refashioned the kits for use as STEAM table activities.

We created a Community Coloring Book Mural on a large exterior wall of Potsdam Tire & Auto, a building adjacent to our parking lot. Our arts educator designed a paint-by-number outline and twenty families signed up online to complete a specific section, one family at a time. A local college lent support, and the tire shop and other donors contributed as well. The project was joyful, active, and collaborative while still adhering to social distancing guidelines. The “I Love New York” campaign got wind of it, and our mural was one of ten featured on the New York state tourism site. Ultimately, families completed a quarter of the 120-by-fifteen-foot wall. We had such a tremendous response to the project that we plan to finish it, one quarter at a time, over the next three summers.

Like many other closed museums, we spent some time reviewing and refurbishing our still fairly new exhibits in addition to continuing to plan new ones. We had already raised the money, contractors were less than busy, so we took advantage of the visitor-free building. In our Construction Zone exhibit, we decided to replace a balance beam and bridge building activity that had never worked well with a crane to lift blocks. In our Kids’ Co-op Natural Grocery Store, we added a “refrigerated” section and “baking table.” A local art teacher with time on his hands helped us make other small repairs and improvements. These exhibit tune-ups also contributed to a marketing message to our waiting visitors: look at the cool stuff we will have for you when you return. 

Reopening with limited capacity began in August, with four weeks of nearly full themed camps. These camps gave us a chance to test out our new health and safety protocols, including daily health and temperature checks. Kids enrolled in our videography camp created our reopening video. Kids can often deliver serious messages (“If you are sick, please stay home!”) in ways that adults can’t. 

On September 2, we reopened to the general public. We follow New York State indoor museum mandates, which, at this writing, limit capacity to 25 percent and require masks for all visitors two years and older. At the now-shielded front desk, families are asked health-screening questions per CDC guidance; anyone who has been in a high-risk state within the last two weeks is not permitted to enter. Visitors must sign the log with their name, phone number, and time and date of entry should we be notified by public health contact tracers.

While some COVID-based modifications have been made, the 3,500-square-foot museum’s original exhibits remain intact. In addition to our own increased cleaning, we give visitors a baggie of sanitized wipes and ask them to wipe down toys and manipulatives after use. We’ve added wall-mounted hand sanitizing dispensers and social distancing signage throughout the museum. A “reopening” tab on our website recommends online sign-ups for weekend hours to ensure a spot, just in case we are full. In September, we only filled to the current capacity twice. In general, attendance has been about 15 percent of our pre-COVID numbers, but that number is increasing weekly. Fee-based, drop-off STEAM class sessions for school age children have been added to fill the gaps in childcare, as schools in our district are partially online.

As we maintain and adapt our current exhibits, for our own sense of joy and agency, we decided to move forward with planned exhibits. With Clarkson University Digital Arts faculty and students, we’re finishing our History of a North Country Childhood digital interactive exhibit. A portion of my salary while working on this exhibit and other cultural programs is covered by an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Act. The exhibit’s stories, already recorded pre-COVID, will be presented in shadow boxes, the sound activated by pressing a button. We are also moving forward with expansion plans for our undeveloped second floor. Still in the early planning stages, this is projected to open in early 2023.

Have we adjusted these new exhibit designs based on COVID-19 experiences? Not in any direct way. Perhaps we will factor in new considerations as we work with an exhibit design firm on the second-floor expansion. We are hopeful, like everyone, that the scientific and medical community will have answers by that time and people will be eager to reenter the public sphere for play and connection.

Sharon Vegh Williams is the executive director of the North Country Children’s Museum in Potsdam, New York.