Museums and Covid: Wiping the Dust Off our Community Assets

Museums and Kids

When I was a child, Friday nights at the Boston Children’s Museum had free admission.  Being one of five children at the time, my father found this situation extremely helpful. Free, kid-friendly places ranked high on his list.  My mother worked as a nurse on Friday nights.  We took the twenty-minute ride and spent a couple of hours engaged and content in science experiments and creative projects.  My dad followed along with his sole challenge being to not lose one of us. We would have been crushed to lose these museum trips from a Covid-like pandemic.

The Children’s Museum, The Science Museum, the Boston Aquarium, the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, these were the “outings” of my childhood.  They broke up routines and while museum exhibits did not change dramatically, I didn’t tire of them.  I remember how other-worldly the aquarium seemed and filled me with wonder.  Enormous sharks, sea turtles and fish floated silently under dim, blue lighting.  Years later, I was able to go snorkeling and to see these animals in the wild.  However, as a child, I was getting to glimpse a place that was otherwise beyond my reach. The services that museum staff provide to people with more limited resources plays a vital role in the community. 

Meeting challenges by evolving practices

Museums have (like all things) good points and challenges.  A museum’s earliest form was a private collection of pieces by a wealthy person wanting to demonstrate power. Museums have had tendencies towards elitism and played a role in perpetuating oppression by curating white-centered views of history.  As times have changed, museums are making concrete efforts to change old practices and institute new equitable policies.  Increasing diverse representation among leadership is a central initiative among the majority of museums and will support future generations.

Museums and Covid are not a great combination. The Covid pandemic has upset museum progress and created a crisis that threatens the ability of museums to open. With their doors shuttered and then capacity reduced, the lost revenue from ticket sales and memberships was devastating. As we return to normalcy, there are hundreds of museums that will remain closed. Thousands of jobs of museum professionals and staff will be eradicated.

Cultural Institutions and Community Assets

Even those of us who are not a usual museum audience benefit from having these cultural institutions in our community. The places that rank well on the “Best Places to Live” lists correlate to the density of their museums.  The benefits for communities get even more specific:

  • For every $1 they receive in funding, museums return $5
  • Three-quarters of museum budgets go towards the development of education programs for k-12 students. This kind of partnership between the museum sector and schools is an important initiative in supporting both general and art education.
  • Children who visit a museum even one time in a year, have better test scores than students who do no.
  • Museums contribute $50 billion to the economy and generate $16 billion in tax revenue
  • Museums provide over 700,000 jobs. For every job created in a museum, another job is supported within another sector of the economy.

A final, noteworthy point is the degree to which people trust museums for information.  Museums outrank the media or congress. However, they also rank higher than nonprofit researchers, academic researchers, and federal agencies.  It has been a difficult time during the coronavirus pandemic. In this age of polarization and disinformation, trusted community spaces are vital to our stability.

Bozeman Art Museum: Serving the Community Through Covid

Bozeman Art Museum (BAM) is one of these trusted community spaces. Nestled in Bozeman, Montana, BAM not only provides the usual exhibition space and educational programming, but it also provides art education to ten rural schools in Galatin and Park Counties. With no designated art teachers for grades k-5, BAM stepped in by partnering retired local teachers with local artists. They designed a four-year curriculum that includes skills-based drawing, color, perspective, materials, and art history.

Photo Courtesy of the Bozeman Art Museum

Prior to Covid, BAM was supporting 1,200 children. After Covid, they have still been able to teach 800 children. Linda Williams, the museum executive director commented, “Young children are open and ready. If you teach a child to draw, you have taught them a new language.” Williams explains that the BAM program is deeply committed to the children walking away with new skills after each experience. “This is not playtime,” she chuckled, “Although we certainly do have a lot of fun.”

The BAM Journey

Courtesy of the Bozeman Art Museum

Williams started BAM in 2012. Their progress has had twists and turns, but they continue to move forward. Bozeman did not have a local museum despite its widespread reputation for vibrance, creativity, and culture. Williams sought to rectify this with a couple of thousand square feet where the public could come to view exhibitions, take classes, and hear lectures. As time has passed, their programs have expanded and BAM is ready for relocation into a larger and more conducive space. “We have been very successful providing wonderful exhibits of private collections. We have been able to properly display and care for the works. However, if we hope to partner with large museums to bring the art here, we need a space that is suitable. These pieces need appropriate care and handling and the environment has to support that.”

Photo Courtesy of the Bozeman Art Museum

Museums as Viewing Space and Creative Space

Williams also envisions a museum that is both a space to see finished products and to have some interaction with actual artists. “I would love to create a downstairs artist studio space where many artists could have access to do their work. One of the most difficult challenges for an artist is affordable studio space. I think we could provide that for them.” Having working artists is a lively way to combat the age-old moniker, “dusty old museum.” Williams insists, “We are going to own that and go beyond it.”

BAM has survived through Covid due to its lean operations and the support of the community. Williams noted, “People have been really wonderful throughout this time, and honestly, museums are relatively safe spaces to be. Nobody is touching the art!” BAM took precautions but cutting its visitor capacity, requiring masks, and providing hand sanitizer. They have made it through the worst. A better fate than the one-third of the museums around the country that will close. Williams expects to have about 4000 visitors this year. She looks forward to growing that number in the years to come.

Protecting Art and Creativity

When Covid first hit, it was music, art, and creativity that sustained many of us through anxious months. We watched videos of people playing instruments or singing. We laughed at the recreation of famous paintings from household objects. Many of us marveled at what people came up with to get through the days and stay connected.

As life begins to return to normal, our eagerness to return to the business of living may also cause us to want to forget what we learned from these truly difficult times. Art, music, and creativity are not luxuries. They are the essence of being human. Museums have the ability to nurture and celebrate our creative passions. Museums also tell us about what was and introduce us to what is coming on the horizon.  If you haven’t found a favorite museum to support, I hope this post encourages you to have some museum experiences of your own.

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