As COVID-related restrictions tighten for the second time this year, operators of local museums of all sizes are being forced to think outside the box to survive 2020.
“We were hoping to have a good end of the year with the holidays. But now, to have to close again — the word is ‘devastated,’” said Laurie Bowman, executive director of the Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond. “We are going to do the best we can.”
Others echo those sentiments.
“All of this, of course, is understandable given the necessity to manage the pandemic, but it nevertheless hurts financially,” said John Larson, executive director of the Polson Museum in Hoquiam. “Any way you look at it, closing for any length of time takes a financial toll on the museum given how essential each diverse stream of money is for our operation.”
“It’s just not a big year for an increase in profit,” said Lee Marriott, board president of the Museum of the North Beach in Moclips. “We’ve had a lot of donations, but we have a lot of general expenses that have to be paid to keep running.”
Some aren’t as worried about the latest shutdown.
“I think it’s a wise move considering the rise in cases,” said Julie Smith, operations manager of the Westport Maritime Museum and the Westport Light. “The museum and lighthouse will be OK. This is our downtime of the year anyway, so this round won’t hit us as hard as the last one did.”
Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s most recent guidance, museums must be closed for indoor service. However, the guidance also states that retail operations may continue to operate at 25% capacity.
So, while tours are prohibited for the time being, some museum operators are looking to keep their gift shops running on a limited basis. And they’re hoping their communities will take the opportunity to buy local for the holidays.
The Polson, for example, will open the museum store by appointment. “We’re going to relocate our local history related books and merchandise to the museum’s foyer and let shoppers enter one at a time to browse and buy,” said Larson.
Marriott and partner Kelly Calhoun are considering opening their gift shop on an appointment-only basis. They noted that the annual Avalon Glassworks floats are still for sale, with $20 of each purchase going directly to the museum. They cost $55 through Avalon (because of shipping), but $40 through the museum.
For the smaller museums especially, it is a matter of survival.
“We’re going to keep our gift shop open and keep an eye on the number of people going through, and hope that retail sales will help us get through this,” said Bowman. “Because there’s really no avenue for help this time.”
Last spring, Washington’s museums — like other small operations — had access to specific federal and state aid for their operations and their employees. But this time around, federal aid doesn’t appear to be forthcoming anytime soon — and state and local assistance has not yet been defined for this latest shutdown. The uncertainty weighs heavily as museum operators — and others — try to plan for the future.
Most, though not all, were able to secure funding last time around. “We can only hope similar grant funding is available in the new year,” said Larson.
More state money might be on the horizon, but no one knows when or how much to hope for at this point.
“Inslee puts out this thing where there’s going to be $50 million,” said Bowman. “Well, how do you get that? How do you apply?”
The Museum of the North Beach is putting some needed purchases on hold and slowing construction of its future site. “We have to just focus on breaking even for the year,” said Marriott.
Internet-based options are part of the planning for some.
Marriott was hoping to start the annual capital funding push this spring for the Moclips museum, but health restrictions limit their ability to run a traditional campaign. Their membership renewal drive also was delayed this year. So he’s looking into ways to conduct those efforts online.
He also intends to make it easier for people to donate to the museum through its website. He’s been working on an upgrade that also will allow people to get a better look at what they have.
Bowman said the Carriage Museum featured several live tours and other presentations on Facebook last time around and probably will be doing that again.
“That brought us new memberships from across the state,” she said. “I just hope we can be that successful during this closure.”
She’s planning some Facebook Live bits from the gift shop for Small Business Saturday, as well as presentations about the history of specific carriages at the museum.
“We live in a wonderful community, and everyone wants to help,” said Bowman. “I can’t say enough about my wonderful members stepping up, making donations.”
Marriott echoed her deep appreciation of community support, expressing special gratitude to the Curtright family, which operates the Ocean Crest Resort. They donate the use of the Moclips museum’s current building plus electricity.
“These people really understand how valuable preserving the history of this whole area is, and how much we all benefit from bringing more people out here,” he said.