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How science museums were reinvented to survive the pandemic

On January 30, 2020, Science Gallery Dublin brought together a small group of experts to discuss a strange new disease that had recently emerged in China. Four panelists talked about the origins of the new coronavirus, whether it could be transmitted through the air and the prospects of a vaccine. Although they agreed that it was important to take the virus seriously, speakers urged the audience not to panic. There had been no known cases in Ireland. The prospect of a local outbreak seemed remote.

“And that was the last live event we held at the gallery,” says Aisling Murray, the gallery’s head of programming. That same day, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a "public health emergency of international interest." Six weeks later, with cases on the rise around the world, Science Gallery Dublin closed its doors. It was an accounting moment. "What does Science Gallery mean when we don't have a space?" Murray remembers being asked. "How can we keep engaging our audience?"

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spiral out of control in March 2020, science museums around the world were forced to close abruptly. In a matter of days, ticket revenue disappeared. “It was an existential crisis,” says Christofer Nelson, president and CEO of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, or ASTC, in Washington, DC. "The core business, operational, personnel, and community service model of these organizations has just disappeared overnight. And the question was, 'What do we do next?'"

The weeks and months that followed were extremely difficult for science museums, which lost more than $ 600 million in revenue in the first six months of the pandemic alone, according to the ASTC. Many museums and science centers have been forced to take profound cost-cutting measures; some laid off more than half of their employees.

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Few science museums had substantial endowments to shoot, so they sought support. They launched new donation campaigns, applied for government loans, and applied for grants and support from community organizations or corporations.

As they tried to get to the two meters, they also realized that they had to reinvent their programs if they wanted to survive. Over the past year they have launched a diverse variety of exhibitions and offerings that are not tied to their physical buildings and have helped educate the public about COVID-19. Some museums have even found creative ways to meet the serious needs of the community, providing everything from child care to fresh food.

Along the way, these institutions have redefined what modern science museums can be and how they relate to the world beyond their walls. Although many museums are in various stages of reopening, their experience in the last year can leave a lasting legacy.

a photo of the museum’s exhibits for passersbyAfter the pandemic forced Science Gallery Dublin to close its doors, the museum set up several exhibitions, including a 3-D printed dress that helps reinforce social distancing and a Lego exhibition to explain the herd’s immunity, in the street windows to get the attention of passers-by.Science Gallery Dublin

Hurry pivot

When museums initially closed last year, most administrators thought the outage would only last a few months. In those early days and weeks, institutions moved into crisis response mode, struggling to create some sort of public programming. "Within a couple of weeks, we were spinning what we would now call 'minimum viable products,'" says Tim Ritchie, president of the Boston Museum of Science, staff members who typically spent their days giving face-to-face presentations inside the museum on from reptiles to space they started offering those talks about Zoom. "At first it wasn't that great," Ritchie admits. "But people were hungry (for that), and they tuned in."

Many institutions have done the same, making virtual some of their traditional exhibitions and programs. In late March 2020, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco turned its program into NightLife, a regular Thursday night event that charged $ 10 to $ 20 for admission to the science, music, and cocktail museum on a weekly week. free online. program called NightSchool.

Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center has turned its face-to-face demonstrations into Curiosity Corner LIVE. This daily YouTube broadcast included demonstrations and scientific activities, such as building catapults and lava lamps, for children and families to do at home.

Seattle’s Pacific Science Center filmed the live science demonstrations they typically depicted in person and shot a series of behind-the-scenes videos, with Lady the Tarantula, Rigatoni the Western Snake Hognosis, and other animals from her collection. “We recorded everything we could, as fast as we could,” says Zeta Strickland, the center’s preK-12 engagement director. The center’s most popular live science program, Combustion, had more than 6,500 views on YouTube.

a screenshot of a video about CombustionIn the early days of the pandemic, many science museums struggled to turn their face-to-face demonstrations into online videos. In a video, Marissa Wyll of the Pacific Science Center shares the wonders of combustion.PACIFIC SCIENCE CENTER

Museums have also used their experience in scientific communication to address the pandemic itself. There was an “immediate and urgent recognition that this crisis was fundamentally a crisis of scientific engagement,” says NTC of the ASTC.

Shannon Bennett, a virologist who is the head of science at the California Academy of Sciences, launched online questions about COVID-19, while the Pacific Science Center designed an online landing page for pandemic-related information. The page includes a pandemic glossary, a vaccine explainer, and a guide to identifying misinformation. The site also offers a selected collection of news articles and links to trusted sources, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There’s been so much misinformation and misinformation out there, so we really wanted to be a resource where people can find accurate information,” says Danielle Cobb, head of marketing communications at the Pacific Science Center.

Some museums have been intensified to meet the most basic needs of the community. The Mid-Hudson Children & # 39; s Museum in Poughkeepsie, New York, had begun running a weekly summer farmers market at its pavilion in 2017. When the pandemic hit, local schools, which offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, closed. “There was a big focus on how to get food for children that they would otherwise get through school,” says Lara Litchfield-Kimber, the museum’s executive director. "What we realized is that in our city we had an essential business."

a photo of people at a farmer's market, everyone wears face masksWhen the Poughkeepsie, N.Y. area closed in the spring of 2020, the Mid-Hudson Children's Museum saw growing food insecurity. The museum already had a summer farmers market, but extended the season from May to October.Mid-Hudson Children's Museum

The museum gathered its vendors and opened the market, which accepts food stamps, in May, a month before its typical start. The market became a hub of activity and museum staff worked with city officials to distribute pamphlets, in English and Spanish, about COVID-19. (The museum is exploring the possibility of hosting a year-round market.) "Museums that are … maintaining their strength are the ones that recognize how to leverage their assets to meet the urgent needs of their community," he says. Litchfield-Kimber.

Across the country, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland has begun offering child care to 20 to 30 children of essential workers. “We have the training. We have the certifications. We have people. We have the material to have kids in the museum – that’s what we do, ”says John Farmer, the museum’s former head of marketing and communications.

a photo of a man holding a crested gecko towards the viewerEducator Brad Alston of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry offers online viewers a closer look at Bebe the Crested Gecko.OREGON MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY

In the fall, the museum turned the child care program into Homeroom, offering a place where children enrolled in a remote school could spend their days. The museum has given priority to needy families, Farmer says, and offered financial aid for the program, which has enrolled more than 100 students over the past year. The San Diego Fleet Science Center organized similar distance learning centers so children could go to the center and connect to their remote classrooms.

Many museums also pool resources for schools that have moved on to distance learning. The California Academy of Sciences has reformatted its planetarium movies for YouTube so that teachers can show movies like Expedition Reef and Fragile Planet to their students. The center also offers free live distance learning broadcasts, in English and Spanish, for kindergarten through eighth grade students.

Queens ’New York Hall of Science has begun offering virtual science workshops to schools: a museum educator leads a whole class of children through an hour of activities and demonstrations on topics ranging from optical illusions to sports science. The workshops, which cost $ 150 per group, run out months earlier. “What teachers want is a little relief,” says Margaret Honey, president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science. "They really gravitate toward experiences."

a screenshot of a virtual exhibition at the Boston Museum of ScienceMany science museums have addressed the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. The Boston Museum of Science used artificial intelligence to create a virtual exhibit that would allow people to ask coronavirus questions to public health expert Ashish Jha of Brown University.Science Museum

Pushing the envelope

As the pandemic dragged on, museums began to think long-term. They became more ambitious and creative. “We decided to improve by being digital,” Ritchie says.

Last summer, the Boston Science Museum created Ask a Virtual Expert, an experiment driven by artificial intelligence with Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, RI museum staff filmed Jha while responding to over 500 questions about COVID -19 and then turned the images into an interactive exhibit. Members of the public can ask questions about the pandemic directly to a digital version of Jha, and he answers.

The Smithsonian, which began scanning some of its artifacts in 3D years ago, used the time it closed to improve its 3D digital offerings. On its website, for example, visitors can browse or download free three-dimensional scans of everything from the Apollo 11 command module to a full woolly mammoth skeleton. In December, the institution announced a partnership with Instagram that allows app users to share photos to display virtual versions of famous Smithsonian artifacts in their own personal spaces. “You can drop the Discovery space shuttle into your garden and have your family stand by you and take a screenshot and share it on Twitter,” says Vincent Rossi, 3D program supervisor at the Smithsonian Office of the Digitization Program.

Science museums have used downtime during the pandemic to invest in new technologies, such as augmented reality. Instagram users can show in their living room a 3D version of Smithsonian farms, like this mammoth.

Other museums have found smart ways to create in-person experiences that are safe for COVID-19. Science Gallery Dublin, located on the campus of Trinity College Dublin, took advantage of the glass façade on one side of its building, installing five pandemic-related exhibitions right inside the glass. Passers-by could peek out the windows and see a group of Lego figures ready to demonstrate the concept of herd immunity or a 3D-printed dress loaded with sensors with a skirt that extends to reinforce social distancing.

Called “Speed ​​of Science,” the exhibition was produced in collaboration with pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which had partnered with the gallery in an emerging exhibition in 2019. The exhibition’s online center, which includes a podcast on vaccination and vaccine development, has had almost 5,000 visits.

Last summer, the Houston Space Center offered “clean room” camps, which simulated the experience of working at one of NASA’s facilities dedicated to ensuring that the objects the agency launches into space are free of potential contaminants. Upon arrival at camp, the children wore gowns, gloves, masks, caps and shoe covers. “Basically, we involve the kids,” says William Harris, president and CEO of the center. "It's like they're in a clean room at NASA." The camps were so popular that the center re-offered them during the Thanksgiving, winter, and spring holidays.

children with protective equipment in a clean roomChildren who attended the Houston Space Center clean room camps wore personal protective equipment to simulate the experience of working in a NASA clean room.HOUSTON SPACE CENTER

Meanwhile, the Mid-Hudson Children & # 39; s Museum used its closure in 2020 to begin a long-planned transition to becoming a more practical science center. To begin its scientific programming while the building was closed, the museum purchased a van and partnered with NASA to turn it into a mobile emerging museum for space-related demonstrations and outdoor activities.

Extended scope

As difficult as the pandemic was, science museums were also given the opportunity to make needed changes and pursue long-standing goals. Even before COVID-19 emerged, the Center for Science and Industry, or COSI, in Columbus, Ohio, had wanted to find new ways to get out into the community. “Yes, we want to sell tickets for our building,” says Frederic Bertley, president and CEO of COSI. "But we have to be more than that."

a boy in a purple shirt working on a science projectThe kids tested a project last summer that the Mid-Hudson Children & # 39; s Museum will offer through a new emerging mobile app.Mid-Hudson Children's Museum

When COSI closed in March 2020, its staff launched a variety of digital offerings and launched a television program, but the team also wanted to recreate the practical and tactile experiences that have been the cornerstone of science museums for a long time. The solution was an assortment of COSI Connects kits.

Each kit has five hands-on activities for children that revolve around a theme: nature, water, space, dinosaurs, or the human body. The kits can be purchased online and COSI distributes it for free through food banks, boys ’and girls’ clubs, homeless shelters and other organizations. The museum is in discussions to distribute them to school districts in Ohio and other states.

“We didn’t try to make money out of it,” Bertley says. "We tried to make sure that COSI continued to be relevant, that a state-of-the-art science museum still played a key role in society, even though we were closed." COSI plans to continue offering the kits when the building reopens in early June. “That’s how we can have an impact beyond Ohio,” Bertley says.

In fact, museums are finding that detaching their programs from their physical buildings has broadened their reach. At the California Academy of Sciences, a pre-pandemic NightLife in person event typically attracted approximately 1,700 people. NightSchool, the virtual version, averages more than 10,000 views per delivery. These events are free; they don’t bring money. But, says Laurel Allen, senior head of digital and community participation, "we have been able to build larger communities."

a photo of a science kitThe Center for Science and Industry has been distributing practical science activity kits through local food banks and shelters for the homeless.PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN MICHAEL SEYMOUR

Although the academy initially thought of its online events as a stepping stone, it decided to continue them in some way now that the museum has reopened. Most spectators are outside the bay area and are unlikely to make regular in-person visits.

An immersive virtual tour created by the National Computer Museum in Milton Keynes, England, last summer attracted more than 140,000 visitors from the UK, US, India and Brazil. “I don’t think we took for granted the reach of the public we had,” says Jacqui Garrad, the museum’s director. "But I think we may not be working hard enough to involve some of the outside communities."

Some museums have invested in accessibility, reviewing websites to be more friendly to blind or low-vision visitors, and offering digital programs specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors. Others have increased their free offerings and resources for low-income families and other communities without services. The Museum of Science in Boston has launched MOS in Spanish, an online center for programming in Spanish.

Of course, the pandemic – and the threat to the basic business model of museums – is not over yet. “I don’t think we’re in any way out of the woods,” says NTC of ASTC. Museums have been “excellent at reducing costs,” he adds. "But now they're at a minimum."

In a survey conducted in June 2020 of 750 museum directors, a third reported that their institutions had a “significant risk” of closing for good. So far, the ASTC is only aware of one permanent closure among science museums: the Orpheum Children & # 39; s Science Museum in Champaign, Ill. And while some museums reopened, visitors were slow to return; attendance is about half of pre-pandemic levels, according to the ASTC’s ongoing attendance survey.

Shortly after the pandemic’s success, ASTC pressured the federal government to include museums in relief efforts and pooled online resources to help its members navigate new financial and operational realities. In the first round of the Federal Check Protection Program, nearly 300 of the ASTC members received loans in excess of $ 180 million.

When museums close, it’s a huge loss to their communities, Nelson says. "Museums really serve as a critical part of the economic, cultural and learning ecosystems of their communities."

But surviving museums can emerge more agile and resilient and able to serve the public in new and urgent ways. “We need to double that idea of ​​wanting to respond at all times to what the community needs,” says Steven Snyder, president and CEO of the Fleet Science Center in San Diego. "It's also proof of the concept that we're not locked into our building. Science centers have never been."

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