Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium

Museums adjust to post-pandemic visits

(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 Mob Museum

The Mob Museum, The National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement is open in downtown Las Vegas with reduced entry capacity, a mask requirement for all guests and pre-entry temperature checks.

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

John Lennon's Guitar

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

The sprawling Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, adjacent to Bass Pro Shops’ national headquarters, reopened over Memorial Day weekend after a nine-week closure.

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.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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

Museums, aquariums, zoos and distilleries in Kentucky cannot reopen before June 8. But in Louisville, key attractions including the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory are already ringing up sales in their gift shops.

Museum Monday: Missouri’s Wonders of Wildlife Museum

Photo by Harriet Baskas


It’s been a wild couple of weeks for Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.

First former U.S. Presidents (and anglers) Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, along with  a boatload of actors, country western stars and outdoors-minded enthusiasts, helped Morris celebrate the opening of his 350,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.

Then, Bass Pro Shops completed its $4 billion acquisition of the rival outdoor retailer Cabela’s

“It’s been like a whirlwind,” Morris told CNBC a day before the museum opened, “Two of the biggest things in my life are happening at once. It was not by design, I’ll tell you that. We’d prefer a little more space in there.”

Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris- photo by Harriet Baskas

Negotiations over the Bass Pro/Cabela’s deal have been underway for over a year. However, it has taken more than 10 years to complete the 350,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife museum (WOW) adjacent to the sprawling Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters, about an hour’s drive from Branson.

Billed as being larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the new Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium boasts 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds; 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums; and more than 1.5 miles of trails that meander through 4-D dioramas that share sights, sounds and smells of wildlife habitat, including the African savannah, the Amazon rainforest, ten U.S. National Parks and the Arctic.

Wonders of Wildlife Museum exhibit – photo by Harriet Baskas

“We wanted to make things fun and create some excitement about big fish and wildlife,” said Morris, “So, for example, when you walk through the Arctic exhibit you’ll hear the wind blow, you’ll see the Northern Lights, you’ll feel cold and be immersed in the environment with the musk ox, the polar bears and the birds of the region.”

Photo by Harriet Baskas

Notable galleries on the aquarium side of WOW include a 300,000-gallon wraparound aquarium, a two-story Shipwreck Room where visitors can touch stingrays, a 3-story ‘bait ball’ created by thousands of herring on the defense against circling sharks; and a gallery filled with photos, fishing artifacts and mementos associated with noted anglers such as Earnest Hemingway, Zane Gray and several U.S. presidents.

Bait Ball – courtesy WOW

While Morris clearly loves it all, two of his favorite spaces in the museum are the detailed recreation of his dad’s Brown Derby liquor store, where Bass Pro began, and the room housing the National Collection of Heads and Horns from the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887.

Record Polar Bear – photo by Harriet Baskas

In that exhibit, World Record bears, bison, caribou, elk and other big game species are displayed just as they were at New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1908 in an exhibit dedicated to conservation and the protection of animals.

“It looks kind of sterile. But it’s a really significant piece of history in our country,” said Morris,  “Roosevelt was concerned about the management of fish and wildlife and he wanted these trophy animals displayed to send a shocking message that if we don’t have good laws and regulations we could lose our buffalo and other wild free ranging animals.”

WOW Museum exhibit – courtesy WOW

With more than 4 million annual visitors, the massive Bass Pro Shops national headquarters in Springfield is known as the “Grandaddy” of outdoor stores and is already the top tourist attraction in Missouri.

In addition to all manner of outdoor gear that is for sale, the store offers a wide variety of free entertainment, including aquariums, an in-store swamp with alligators and turtles, archery and shooting ranges, waterfalls, several sports-related Halls of Fame, and a restaurant.

Admission to the new Wonders of Wildlife is a hefty $39.95 for adults and $23.95 for kids, but Susan Wade of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau doesn’t think tourists or locals will balk.

“In other cities, there are museums and aquariums that charge the same, or more, but give you less,” said Wade, who is also confident Wonders of Wildlife will be a boost for the local economy.

“Visitors now have more of a reason to spend the whole day at the Bass Pro Shops complex. And the longer they stay the more likely they’re going to spend a night in a local hotel,” she said.

And the longer they stay in town, the more likely tourists will visit local restaurants, wineries, breweries, and attractions such as Fantastic Caverns, the Smallin Civil War Cave, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and the spot in downtown Springfield where Wild Bill Hickok was involved in the country’s first recorded quick-draw shootout.

(My story about the new Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, MO first appeared on CNBC in a slight different version.)