World of Speed Museum

How many museums will actually reopen?

Courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art

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.

Courtesy Walker Art Center

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.

A June survey from the America Alliance of Museums found that as many as 12,000 of America’s museums may close for good.

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.”

Courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art

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

Step on it! Oregon’s World of Speed Museum

Petersen & Fitz Top Fuel Dragster, nicknamed -The Northwest Terror- after driver Herm Petersen

Petersen & Fitz Top Fuel Dragster, nicknamed -The Northwest Terror- after driver Herm Petersen. Courtesy World of Speed Museum

It’s not just airplanes that go fast…

There’s a new museum for horsepower hounds, speed fiends and fans of NASCAR, the Indianapolis 500 and anything with a motor that goes fast.

Located 15 miles south of Portland, Oregon, in Wilsonville, the World of Speed Museum is home to nearly 100 historic cars and motorcycles, along with race-themed simulators and a land speed record timeline.

A shrine to speed, the 80,000-square-foot museum is the first to document the history of motor sports in the Pacific Northwest. It also covers the story of motorsports that have roots in other parts of the country.

“You can see Nascar cars at the Nascar Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can see Indy cars in Indianapolis, and you can see drag cars at Pomona (California),” said museum curator Ron Huegli. “We’ve got it all under one roof, including two notable hydroplanes on loan from the Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum near Seattle.”

U-60 Miss Thirftway Hydroplane Boat and U-1 Miss Budweiser Hydroplane Boat.

U-60 Miss Thriftway Hydroplane Boat and U-1 Miss Budweiser Hydroplane Boat. Courtesy World of Speed Museum

The museum’s Daytona display is a winner: a 15-foot-tall, 44-foot-wide structure built with the exact incline of the original 2.5-mile long tri-oval speedway in Florida.

_World of Speed Interior_NASCAR and Daytona Banking

NASCAR and Daytona Banking. World of Speed Museum

The four restored vehicles mounted in the exhibit are from legendary Nascar drivers, and include Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2000 Chevy Impala, Jim Vandiver’s 1974 Dodge Charger, Terry Labonte’s 1988 Chevy Monte Carlo and Cale Yarborough’s 1979 Oldsmobile 442.

Other gems on display at the museum (some are on loan, while others are in the permanent collection) include Mickey Thompson’s famous record-breaking Assault and Indianapolis race cars. Both were built by Rolla Vollstedt in the basement shop at his home in Portland.

Rolla Vollstedt Indy Car  driven by Len Sutton in the 1965 Indy 500.

Rolla Vollstedt Indy Car driven by Len Sutton in the 1965 Indy 500. World of Speed Museum

“We also have ‘Old Number One’ on display in our showcase salon area,” said Huegli. “It’s a 1929 Bentley built as a race car that took first place at the 24-hour Le Mans race in 1929 and 1930. It’s not something many people have seen beyond looking at it on the Internet.”

1929 Bentley-Old Number One- built  as a race car. In 1929, the car took first place at Le Mans with Woolf Barnato and Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin behind the wheel.

1929 Bentley-Old Number One- built as a race car. In 1929, the car took first place at Le Mans with Woolf Barnato and Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin behind the wheel. World of Speed Museum

In addition to three real race cars set up as simulators (a 1962 Lotus Formula racing simulator, Adrian Fernandez’s 1995 Lola Indy Car and Johnny Benson’s 1998 Nascar Ford Taurus) the museum also has a gallery celebrating classic songs about fast cars including Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” The Beach Boys’ “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and Commander Cody’s classic “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Gearhead factor aside, there are some broader themes the World of Speed Museum is hoping to drive home.

“Motorsports represent American ingenuity,” said Huegli. “You’re presented with a problem and you solve it in a quest to go faster, which is the whole idea behind racing.”

There’s also the business side of motorsports. Nascar’s top earners pull down more than $170 million in aggregate earnings, endorsements and other income streams, and Nascar itself commands billions from television rights, in spite of faltering viewership.

“It’s huge,” said Huegli. “It’s hard to add it all up, but there are ticket sales at events, the billions of dollars generated by manufacturing related to motorsports, the budgets of all the race teams and the billions of dollars companies spend on sponsorships and advertising related to motorsports racing.”

Add in Formula 1 racing, which had revenue last year of close to $2 billion alone and, said Huegli, “the zeroes just keep adding up.”

(A slightly different version of my story about the World of Speed Museum first appeared on CNBC.)