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North Central Florida Museums Shift Events And Exhibits Due To COVID-19

The Florida Museum has partnered with the Alachua County Library to provide interactive Zoom events featuring museum scientists. (WUFT News archives)
The Florida Museum has partnered with the Alachua County Library to provide interactive Zoom events featuring museum scientists. (WUFT News archives)

Due to COVID-19, museums in north central Florida have been faced with the challenge of providing visitors with the experience of viewing and interacting with exhibits remotely. Since the initial shutdown of non-essential businesses in March, museum directors and educators have been implementing creative solutions.

Chelsea Collison, the museum educator at the Florida Museum in Gainesville, said her job was very challenging throughout the beginning of the pandemic. The museum was forced to cancel and postpone many events visitors were looking forward to and their budget and attendance rates suffered. However, since then, the museum has adapted and implemented new education initiatives through online resources, such as virtual tours.

The Florida Museum has partnered with the Alachua County Library to provide interactive Zoom events featuring museum scientists.

“We’re trying to move away from lecture-style Zooms,” Collison said. “We do this by bringing in multiple speakers and making our events interactive with polls and games to increase participation.”

She said the pandemic has forced her to be very creative as the museum educator, but she views online learning as an opportunity to expand the museum’s audience outside of Alachua County.

“Virtual isn’t going away,” she said. “In the future we’re looking for innovative ways to combine virtual exhibits with in-person ones. Museums are all facing this shift right now and we’re doing some pretty cool stuff.”

The Florida Museum’s annual summer camp was held virtually for the first time this year, but Collison said the camp was able to offer kids a hands-on experience by providing them with kits and activities to take home.

The museum was also able to continue its event Science on Tap, a speaker series at a local brewery, virtually, by re-naming it Science off Tap.

Similar initiatives have been taken at the Museum of Art in DeLand. Up until the beginning of October, the museum only allowed visitors to walk through galleries with masks on, according to Executive Director Pattie Pardee. She said the museum’s staff has been looking for ways to provide families with a fun and educational experience remotely. To do this, the museum had to make many cutbacks including reducing employees’ work hours and business hours.

“We really have to watch the budget because we don’t know what’s going to happen with investors, donors and grants,” Pardee said.

She said the Museum of Art has been utilizing its permanent collection, as opposed to importing exhibits from other museums, so it can allocate money for handwashing and sanitizing stations. Also, the museum has stopped reception ceremonies for new exhibits until further notice.

Pardee said visitor turnout is better than she expected, but still less than she was aiming for. The museum used to have Family Fun Saturdays, where children and parents would come together and do crafts. However, due to COVID-19, Pardee has had to offer the experience remotely by giving out packets for families to take home and complete together.

“I hope this change is only temporary,” she said. “People need to interact face-to-face with art. Photographs just aren’t the same.”

The Discovery Center in Ocala primarily utilized its website when non-essential businesses in Florida closed. The center released a digital lab learning series for children to watch video segments, print worksheets and complete projects remotely with household items.

When the center re-opened on Oct. 3, it took about 75% of items off of the floor so they could be sanitized and replaced quickly, according to Discovery Center Manager Kate Messenger. Instead of hands-on activities around the center, toys are placed in self-contained plastic bags stored in cabinets that children can take home with them.

“We had to cut our hours of operation to allow for cleaning in the middle and end of the day and additional handwashing and sanitizing stations,” Messenger said. “Our budget has mostly been impacted on the admissions end though, because of the limited capacity requirements.”

She said the Discovery Center is currently working on building smaller high-quality exhibits as opposed to larger and more elaborate ones due to the budget cuts.

“It’s hard to say what the future will look like,” she said. “We’re trying new things, hopefully museums can come together and come up with innovative ways to provide families with our resources remotely.”

Lily is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.