The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 26, 2020 1:00 am

Museums exhibit versatility

Act to enhance online offerings as virus hits hard

Samantha Nower | The Journal Gazette

A field trip for students this coming school year might look different than in past years. Instead of actually traveling to visit a museum, a student may have to go no further than their computer screen to experience what an organization has to offer.

Museums across the country have had to rethink how they operate after shutting down this year because of the coronavirus. In a March letter to Congress, the American Alliance of Museums estimated that U.S. museums are losing $33 million a day from COVID-19 closures. The letter also stated as many as 30% of museums could be forced to close permanently from the loss of revenue.

Because of this, museums have increased their online presence. And although many school systems are making plans to return to face-to-face learning for the new school year, museums in the Fort Wayne area are working to boost their online content in preparation for another possible shutdown in the fall, developing digital strategies to supplement the physical experience of their organizations. 

Alyssa Dumire, director of children's education for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, said when the shutdown happened, the first thing many schools did was cancel all field trips and extracurricular activities. That meant the museum's once-full schedule dwindled until all school-year programs had to be canceled.

Fort Wayne Museum of Art typically has 100,000 visitors a year – 30,000 of which are students. It missed out on about 6,500 student visits because of school trip cancellations this year.

Dumire knew she had to do something immediately in order to bring museum content to everyone staying at home. So she recorded herself giving a tour of all the current exhibits and posted it online.

That was just the first in a series of online developments the art museum has made since the stay-at-home order. And according to Dumire, more are on the way.

The museum raised $10,000 for digital outreach during the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne's Giving Tuesday Now fundraising campaign May 5, Dumire said. The fundraiser was created specifically to help charities during the pandemic.

Through those donations, the museum was able to continue to produce video tours of current exhibitions. Already on the website are tours of the Print and Drawing Study Center, contemporary art exhibits and student work from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

“Learning about art sparks creative and critical thinking skills, and that's something that we focus on in our guided tours, so we're trying to find ways to encourage that with virtual programming,” Dumire said.

The museum has future plans to recruit volunteers to read children's books that would normally be found inside the museum for those children who have to stay home.

“I think it's important to have that flexibility in place,” she said of the museum's attempts to build up online content. “Because now we don't know what (teaching) is going to look like.”

Fort Wayne Museum of Art was just one of many museums caught off guard by the shutdown and had to develop or increase its online content in an effort to reach the public better.

Todd Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center in Fort Wayne, said the museum had to step up its online presence in the face of the pandemic.

The History Center, which usually has 80,000 visitors each year, has expanded its content on social media, sharing artifacts and telling historical stories through Facebook and Instagram.

“I'm so proud of our staff. Not only did we continue to make a prolific series of posts, but we actually expanded the frequency and the variety of our socially history posts during the pandemic,” he said. “The response from those posts were just really, really super.”

Pelfrey said the museum also has artifact kits for students and teachers and is working on expanding educational outreach and distance learning programs for this next school year.

If a second shutdown occurs in the fall, Pelfrey said the History Center is ready.

“We're far better prepared for this time,” he said. “We were quite successful in pulling together what we did with very little notice the first time, and this time we're far better prepared and should be able to continue to offer seamless programming.”

Science Central, which typically sees 135,000 visitors a year with more than 300 school groups, also has been actively preparing for a potential second shutdown this fall.

“We are going to have the whole summer to kind of practice this new normal and prepare for whatever the teachers may need us to do going forward in the fall,” said Amy Alexander, education director for Science Central.

Since the shutdown, the hands-on science museum has been consistently uploading to its YouTube channel with science experiments and demonstrations, as well as preparing virtual content and take-home kits for its summer programs and virtual outreach.

“Our mission is to be a science center for all people, and all ages, all abilities,” she said. “and the only way that we were going to be able to reach all people of all abilities, of all ages is virtually, and so we definitely had that recognition and then moved in that direction.”

Alexander said the museum is working to not only provide virtual content, but hands-on experiences that kids can re-create at home.

“(The shutdown) is going to emphasize the need to for a digital presence,” she said, “but I think in some respects, it also means that we have to stand out among all that new digital traffic.”

The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn has implemented several plans to keep up with online learning, said Elyse Faulkner, education and programs manager. 

One idea is to start a page so that the museum can continue to provide education to the community. On the site are free materials like take-home worksheets, curriculum guides and virtual tours of the museum.

Faulkner said that prior to the shutdown, the museum had been making strides to expand its outreach, including developing STEM and engineering camps for kids that connect back to the history of the automobile industry in Indiana.

She said her greatest concern is the museum patrons, which usually total about 42,000 each year.

“I am a strong believer that part of being a kid is learning how to work in the world, and visiting museums is part of that, and it's absolutely critical for students to learn how to be a lifelong learner,” she said.

Faulkner also said the museum is prepared and will continue expanding its online digital materials for the upcoming fall. 

“There's a lot of work that goes into building those programs and making sure that we're offering something that's quality and that's really adding something to our community,” she said. “But it is absolutely my goal that moving forward we can begin offering more intensive digital experiences.”

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