North Florida Museums Interact With Public Despite COVID-19 Challenges

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Walking through the empty gallery halls at the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville every day hurts Dixie Neilson to her core. The museum has been closed to visitors since March, and as quiet as museums typically are, these bare walls and silence felt different.

“It’s a challenge for us both physically and emotionally,” said Neilson, the executive director. “We love the public, and we really want them to share things with us.”

Data collected from the American Alliance of Museums suggest that museums support more than 726,000 American jobs, and they contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year.

But they all are facing significant financial hits as the pandemic continues to ravage the nation.

Since March, museums that are otherwise community anchors and serve as economic engines haven’t been able to completely serve the public. Across northern Florida, they have been working hard to stay relevant and keep creativity alive as much as possible.

Neilson said Matheson employees have developed several programs to keep the public engaged virtually. She said the museum’s “COVID-19 Community Archive” is a way to preserve the community’s stories and experiences in real time during the pandemic.

“That was really the impetus for getting the archive started, and it has become really wonderful seeing people contribute and identify with one another,” she said.

Neilson said the museum has done a lot of public outreach virtually.

“We have had several speakers on various topics of social justice, and we will continue doing that until at least through December,” she said. “Every time we have an event, we record it and put it up on our website, so our audience can go back and enjoy it as many times as they want.”

When the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville shut down in March, educator Chelsea Collison said it went into panic mode, adding a lot of red ink to the calendar.

“We understood the potential of pivoting some of our programs to be virtual, but none of us have had a lot of experience with it before,” Collison said.

Above: Alec Warren, education manager at the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville, speaks about the museum’s changes in policy, programming and operations amid the pandemic. (Franki Rosenthal/WUFT News)

While many of the museum’s exhibits are now open to the public, and attendance is recovering, Collison said event programming is still happening virtually.

The museum’s “Science on Tap” program, normally held at local breweries in Gainesville, is now hosted online. Collison said patrons are encouraged to visit the breweries in advance, grab their favorite drink and then virtually join the event afterward.

“We want to engage our audience rather than have them sit there passively watching a lecture,” she said. “People already get that in their workplaces or classes, so we try to make our events different than your regular Zoom experience.”

The Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts in Tallahassee remained closed throughout the summer. Since then, pivoting its programming online has allowed the museum to reach audiences beyond Florida, according to Preston McLane, its fine arts director.

“We collected data, and we discovered that we had people attending from New York, Maryland, California and the U.K.,” McLane said. “This was never a part of the audience we thought we were serving, so we’re excited about raising the profile of the museum and our programs.”

At the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville, education manager Alec Warren said a COVID-19 task force worked intently since March to safely reopen in June. Warren said museum staff created one-way directional pathways, touchless buttons, installed hand sanitizer stations and require masks at all times for guests above 6 years old.

“We sometimes see, in non-COVID times, up to 1,000 people in our building a day,” he said. “It was really about looking at how we continue to serve the community and how to reopen safely.”

While the museum is now open, it is only operating from Thursday to Sunday at 50% capacity.

“Part of that is to allow for deep cleaning of our exhibit spaces on those off days, and part of it as well is because we are in a challenging time,” Warren said. “Up to 20% of all museums and public institutions worldwide are closed because of COVID-19 and will not reopen their doors.”

Warren said the museum received a lot of support from the Jacksonville community through donations and membership purchases.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville had wanted to develop a virtual museum tour even before the pandemic, said Matthew Patterson, its director of education and public programs.

“When we closed the museum, we reevaluated, and said that this could actually be a really interesting tool that we could expand on,” Patterson said.

He added: “This is something that we probably wouldn’t have taken the leap on, and now we realize that it is such a great product. It has given us the ability to work with audiences outside of Jacksonville, and it’s a real game-changer for us.”

Neilson said she looks forward to when the Matheson can reopen.

In the meantime, she said, “We’re trying to accommodate the public as best as we can, and remind them that we are still here, and we’re still a resource for them.”

About Franki Rosenthal

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

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