Sharing a (slightly updated) story we wrote for NBC News about the challenge museums are facing when considering reopening – or not – as a result of the pandemic.
Museums opening slowly and cautiously. But some may not reopen at all.
New York City museums will reopen later this month, with timed entry and other precautions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday — but one-third of U.S. museums and attractions may not ever open their doors again, according to a recent survey.
Before the pandemic, museums, zoos, science centers and other historic and cultural attractions across the United States welcomed more than 850 million visitors a year, supported more than 726,000 jobs and contributed more than $50 billion a year to the economy.
Since March, that picture has faded. Many museums have been forced to make staff layoffs and furloughs, temporarily close doors, cut programs, lose revenue and, for those lucky enough to have them, dip into endowments.
“Initially, many museums resisted the temptation to tap their endowments to help plug their budget shortfalls,” Scott Perry, partner and co-leader of the Endowments and Foundations practice at NEPC, an investment firm, told NBC News. “But as the pandemic has continued on, some of these museums are reconsidering this approach and spending at much higher levels than they otherwise would,” he added.
While some have rolled out everything from virtual escape room nights to live-streamed galas and animal cams, these types of activities can’t fully replace the regular revenue stream of in-person visits.
For now, such efforts “keep museum staff employed and keep the community engaged,” said Brendan Ciecko, CEO and founder of museum engagement platform Cuseum. “They also generate revenue, which is the best of all worlds.”
Museums giving it a try
Other museums have already begun to welcome back visitors, albeit with reduced capacity and restrictions on activities.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is following the lead of many grocery stores and shops by offering special gallery hours for at-risk visitors.
In Texas, the San Antonio Museum of Art is open, with visitors enjoying the additional space required for social distancing. One visitor told NBC News her family “felt safe the whole way through” their recent visit. The museum is also gaining off-campus fans by offering free downloads of artwork from its collection to players of Nintendo’s popular “Animal Crossing” game for use in virtual homes or art galleries.
The IMAG History & Science Center in Fort Myers, Florida, is open with virtual sessions and interactive virtual birthday parties for kids (and adults) with wizard, superhero, Star Wars and other themes.
Some museums already closed permanently
However, some museums have already announced permanent closures.
In mid-May, the five-year-old World of Speed Motorsport Museum in Wilsonville, Oregon, announced it would close and distribute its funds and assets — which include historic race cars, boats and motorcycles — to schools and other museums.
The museum closure is a strongly felt loss not only because “it put Wilsonville on the map as a major new tourism draw, but because the museum had formed a successful partnership with the local community college and 12 area high schools to host automotive classes for hundreds of students,” said Mark Ottenad, Public/Government Affairs Director for the City of Wilsonville.
In June, the Children’s Museum in Richmond, Virginia, closed its Fredericksburg branch. “This decision was made with a heavy heart,” the museum’s Executive Director Danielle Ripperton said in a statement. “It is necessary in light of our extended closure and resulting loss in revenue,” she added.
In early July, the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles announced its closure after 10 years, promising to donate its collection of prints to a “a highly reputable public archival institution.”
Other museums around the country may now be grappling with making similar decisions.
“Our survey was done before the latest virus spikes that happened in July,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, which conducted the survey. “And from what I’m hearing, if we did that survey again today it would be worse than in June, given that states are going back a phase and the virus is spiking in different places.”
Lott says some museums she has talked with are playing the “scenario game” about options to avoid closure.
“They don’t want to talk about it before they’re sure that’s what they’ll have to do,” she said.
Some places are taking matters into their own hands. The Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, started a GoFundMe account to “save Space Camp.” Just 17 days in to the fundraiser, the museum has already met — and exceeded its $1.5 million goal.
Not every cultural institution will be so lucky.
“Right now, a lot of places are just trying to stretch resources as far as they can go to give themselves a chance — before making a decision to close,” Lott said
(My story about museums welcoming back visitors first appeared on NBC)
Ready to leave your house and spend some time in a museum?
With all 50 states in some stage of post-pandemic reopening, many museums are back welcoming visitors to art- and history-filled halls.
Doing so signals a return to “normal” in many communities — but it may also help plug the economic hole created when almost every museum in the country closed its doors in response to COVID-19 concerns.
“All museum revenue related to admission, gift shop and café sales evaporated, along with event rentals,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, which pegs the loss at $33 million a day. “As many as one-third of the nation’s national cultural treasures may never reopen.”
Museums that are opening are doing so with extreme caution and close attention to social distancing, health and safety. Here is a sampling of what visitors will encounter.
Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
It’s sexy when Elvis Presley croons about feeling his temperature rising in the classic “Burning Love.” But now that the gates at Graceland are reopened, anyone with a fever 100.4 degrees or higher is not allowed to enter the shrine to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In addition to mandatory temperature checks, the attraction is limiting entry to just 25 percent of normal capacity and encouraging guests to wear masks. It is using commercial-grade cleaners, including UV light sanitizer wands and disinfectant foggers, to sanitize the campus.
The museum has its own speakeasy and, while supplies last, will be giving each guest a complimentary bottle of ethanol hand sanitizer made in the on-site distillery.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland
If it stayed closed through the end of the year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would be facing a $12 million loss in revenue. So the museum is eager to reopen to the public by June 15.
“We have been blowing the doors off with virtual offerings on our website and reaching people where they are at this time,” said museum CEO Greg Harris, “We think that will increase the number of people that now desire to visit the museum in person.”
When the doors do open, there will be timed entry, limited capacity and newly hired nurses at the entrance to take everyone’s temperatures. The museum will reserve certain hours for at-risk groups such as seniors. Rock ‘n’ roll-themed masks will be provided to visitors who arrive without their own.
Many touch screens will be turned off until the museum installs antimicrobial covers, and “The Garage,” an exhibit that encourages visitors to play instruments and jam with others, will be closed.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not! – Branson
Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museum (home of the world’s largest roll of toilet paper) opened over Memorial Day weekend with reduced capacity and new social distancing and sanitizing systems. The odditorium is evaluating how the protocols are working out before opening for the summer season.
Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, Springfield, Missouri
To accommodate social distancing, timed entries, enhanced cleaning procedures and limits on daily attendance, the attraction is extending its opening hours. Confined spaces like the swinging bridge are temporarily closed; interactive experiences, such as the penguin encounter, are being modified; and the museum is adopting the COVID-19 response plan developed by the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and the Infectious Disease Prevention team at Tampa General Hospital.
New York City’s iconic Met said it plans to reopen in mid-August or whenever the city meets the phased-in reopening requirements.
The museum’s three locations — The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Cloisters and The Met Breuer — have been closed since mid-March.
“The Met has endured much in its 150 years, and today continues as a beacon of hope for the future,” President Daniel Weiss said in a statement last week. The institution will belatedly celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, he said.
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming
The 40-acre Buffalo Bill Center of the West reopened May 7 with added staff members during peak hours to keep surfaces in the center’s five museums clean. Now that the south and east entrances to Yellowstone National Park are open, the museum is fine-tuning its new protocols and preparing to welcome more visitors.
Kentucky Derby Museum and Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, Kentucky
“Krapp,” “DouDou” & toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on it
This is an excerpt from the story we wrote for Fodor’s Travel about a Toilet Paper Museum in the Pacific Northwest.
Toilet paper has been in the news quite a bit lately as people search for it, swap for it and, in a pinch, steal it.
But Bobj Berger isn’t letting anyone near his cache of more than 200 rolls of vintage, odd and unusual rolls of the toilet paper in his Toilet Paper Museum.
Berger began his own collection with a bright pink roll of Canadian toilet paper with French writing on one side of the wrapper and English on the other. Not long after, his sister presented samples from the first and tourist-class restrooms on a German train.
After that, the collection just kept rolling along.
The circa-1969 “Krapp” toilet paper comes from Austria. The roll of “Doudou” toilet paper hails from Martinique.
In the celebrity section of the museum, toilet paper bearing the likeness of actor John Wayne is emblazoned includes the slogan “It’s rough, it’s tough, and it don’t take crap off anyone.”
The politically-themed section of the Toilet Paper Museum includes novelty rolls that encourage users to wipe up with presidents ranging from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Jimmy Carter.