Elsabe Dixon didn’t anticipate having to guide the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History through a pandemic when she took over as executive director six months ago, but she is fully entrenched in the process now.
As the coronavirus has forced each industry to tailor its services to remain operational, museums are faced with the unique challenge of presenting large, interactive, hands-on or immersive experiences in a way that no longer requires guests to leave their homes.
At the Danville museum, that means creating a digital version of the Sutherlin Mansion tour, uploading virtual education units and putting as many exhibits and collections online as possible. They are also putting together a new visitor service video and a civil rights exhibition virtual and audio tour.
“It’s taking a lot of effort to do, and it’s a very interesting process,” Dixon said.
At the Danville Science Center, the doors may be closed, but that doesn’t mean the science stops. Like other museums, it has to redirect its efforts to digital platforms to continue to engage its audience.
Executive Director Adam Goebel said the museum has launched a Moments of Science series on Facebook, featuring do-it-yourself experiments that children and families can try at home, along with a Virtual Online Interstellar Discussion, or VOID, that simulates the planetarium experience and features a Q&A session with an astronomer.
“This situation in my mind has really highlighted how important science, technology and the STEM fields are,” Goebel said. “It really highlights and solidifies what our role is in society as a hands-on science center.”
Goebel said an expanded social media presence is vital to ensuring that the Danville Science Center’s offerings remain in front of guests at home.
Dixon said the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History is taking a similar approach by allowing supporters of the museum to create their own Dada collages, an irreverent art form, featuring their dreams or scenes during the pandemic. Submissions will be featured on the museum’s Facebook and Instagram galleries, along with the other museum content. So far, Dixon is encouraged by how much engagement she’s seen online from residents and non-residents alike.
“Danville is being seen online by a lot of people,” she said.
Not every museum’s content lends itself easily to be featured online, though.
The traditional appeal of the A.A.F. Tank Museum is the opportunity to see the giant vehicles and other relics of war up close. That experience is tougher to mimic virtually.
“We’re not dealing with too many people at this particular moment,” said Natasha Gasser, the museum’s director. “We’ve had to cancel many of our big events.”
When museums are unable to open to the public and receive the revenue from tickets, programs and summer camps, financial worries start to creep in, Goebel said. Right now, the Danville Science Center is closed through June 10, but that date may also have to be pushed back, compounding the financial issues.
Dixon said the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History has been fortunate to receive state and federal funding, not only to help put exhibits online, but also to keep staff members employed. She added that members have generously continued to pay membership fees and make other contributions.
“Your local donations are not enough to sustain the museum,” she said, “but between the state and federal support and the local support, we are OK, which is the good news, for now. I don’t know what it will look like in another two months, but for now, we’re doing very well.”
The museum anticipates opening once again after 14 consecutive days of decreasing or zero reported coronavirus cases in Danville and the surrounding counties or as permitted by local and federal laws. In the meantime, Dixon is excited for upcoming programming that will take place outside of the museum’s walls.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is sending its traveling Artmobile on the road this summer and will be in Danville from July 14-17. As an interactive gallery, Dixon envisions frequent cleanings and expanded hours to accommodate more guests.
“The idea, of course, is to bring in people who otherwise might never see museums,” she said.
She’s also anticipating a yoga program in the museum’s rose garden during the summer. Maybe that expands into other outdoor socially distanced attractions, such as live bands or art exhibits.
Goebel said the Danville Science Center is currently undergoing some extensive construction work in its main building in preparation of new galleries opening in the fall. At least, that’s the plan.
He said the facility is already examining new procedures for when it can fully reopen — ideas that include new options for group sizes, new methods for ticketing and new protocols for cleaning and disinfecting the building.
Even when museums of all sorts open again, Goebel said there’s no telling if parents and children will visit and interact with the exhibits in the same way they used to.
“There have been a lot of conversations about what the new normal will be,” he said. “It’s absolutely going to change how we operate. To what extent, the jury’s still out on that.”