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Washington's museums vs the pandemic

caption: The Asian Art Museum in Seattle.
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The Asian Art Museum in Seattle.
Courtesy of Asian Art Museum

One thing you’ve rarely been able to do since last March is visit a museum. For the most part, museums have been shuttered since the pandemic started. But almost all museums, big and small, expect to reopen. Meanwhile, they’re learning new tricks.

There are about 170 museums in Washington State. Only a handful have permanently closed because of Covid-19. The Bellingham Railroad Museum shut down and transferred its items to the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. The Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum also closed.

“When the museums close” says Sadie Thayer, Director of the Kittitas County Historical Museum and president of the Washington Museum Association, “the community loses their history and heritage because it's really dispersed from that central place, you know, it's really lost.”

Federal, state and local relief funding has helped museums stay afloat. Some museums own property to get rental income. But many museums rely on renting out their space for weddings and parties. That income has flatlined with Covid-19 closure.

The Seattle Art Museum just opened its Asian Art building in January and had to close six weeks later.

“Certainly, it's been, there's been a great deal of hardship on staff here at the museum,” says Eric Nelson, Executive Director and CEO at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. The museum had 32 full-time and five part-time staff in March of last year. Seventy-five percent of the staff has been affected either by hourly reductions or furloughs.

“I think like, like many of my peers thought, that we'd be through this and in two or three, or maybe four months with the outside,” Nelson says. “Here we are nearly a year later, still struggling, trying to find our way."

“I think for everybody right now, one of the hardest challenges is finding the motivation to keep going. That's huge," says Harriet Weber, Director of Operations at Quincy Valley Historical Society and Museum. “What I’ve tried to do is focus our board and volunteers … OK we can’t do this we can’t do that … how can we serve our community?”

In April, Weber started a Facebook Live event, Music at the Museum. “We had local people just do raw music and, and other kinds of talents." They’ve done 22 virtual music nights featuring jazz guitar, light classical, folk, and an evening of music from Disney movies.

John Larson, Director of the Polson Museum in Hoquiam is staying in touch with Centennial Moment radio features airing on four local radio stations. At Seattle’s MOHAI — the Museum of History and Industry — they’re doing a virtual and in-person scavenger hunt in their South Lake Union neighborhood to explore its rich history.

The National Nordic Museum couldn’t hold their third annual Nordic Innovation Summit in person because of the pandemic. After some hemming and hawing, they moved it online. They were delighted to boost attendance from 400 to 6,000, not only here in Pacific Northwest, but Europe in Africa and Asia. They’ll adopt this for the future.

One of the most innovative museum adaptations to the pandemic is at the Cowlitz County Museum in Kelso, Wash. Museum Director Joseph Govednik is documenting the pandemic with a call out for physical artifacts, like empty bottles of Covid-19 vaccine. He’s also collecting the stories about the pandemic so future generations can hear first-hand about the moment we’re living in.

“We have stories of people losing their jobs and things like that, but I think one that stuck with me was a person whose relationship had fallen apart. And one of the side effects of Covid is the added stress that it puts on marriages and relationships. And it's it really brings it to home that it affects us in so many different ways of people who are cooped up together in relationships that were on the rocks at the beginning of Covid are only further stressed.”

Under current statewide pandemic restrictions, museums can only be open to households of up to six people for private tours. So if you’d like to get out of the house, you could check with your nearby museum and see if they’ll book you a tour.

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