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The Daily Tar Heel

Now allowed to reopen, museums develop a broad array of plans to welcome back patrons

The N.C. Museum of Art reopened on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 with Covid19 restrictions after Governor Roy Cooper's Phase 2.5 eased public restrictions. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Museum of Art.

Now that museums are allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity, some locations in the Triangle are using a variety of methods to bring visitors back and expand virtually. 

The North Carolina Museum of Art was among the first to reopen its doors Sept. 9. Janis Treiber, director of visitor experience, said staff knew the announcement would come eventually, and the museum began preparing for physical reopening early this summer. 

"Luckily, we had done so much with our facility to clean and prepare and make it safe, and our marketing team had everything ready to go that we pretty much could open immediately," she said. 

Despite reopening quickly, Treiber said the museum has not come close to exceeding the mandated 50 percent capacity. She said many more visitors have chosen to explore the surrounding park’s outdoor sculptures or the museum’s online exhibits. 

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences will reopen with limited exhibits Sept. 22. Eric Dorfman, who recently became the museum's director and chief executive officer, said adjusting to the new job amid a pandemic has been surreal.

He also said the pandemic has provided the museum an opportunity to think deeply about its mission and develop new strategies for reaching people. 

“We are in a really lucky position being a part of the state that most of us could keep going during this time, whereas many other museums have had to furlough a lot of people, so we feel very blessed from that perspective,” Dorfman said. 

He said support from the government and the large size of the museum enabled it to develop online exhibits quickly, including virtual tours and events with live animals. Starting Monday, the museum will virtually host BugFest, a week of intensive programming about bugs that coincides with the launch of a new podcast, “Love Nature: The Biophilia Podcast.”

Although Dorfman said the museum has been supported by the state, a substantial portion of its income is still dependent upon gift shop sales and donations. He said the museum has worked to develop new sources of revenue online.

“For instance, being able to have virtual birthday parties for kids, so you can get online and for a ticket price, we can show you animals and gear the whole party towards your child,” Dorfman said. “We just have to keep thinking nimbly and finding new ways to serve that part of the public in a way that can earn revenue.” 

The Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill is another organization that has been thinking creatively about making up lost revenue. Executive Director Lisa Van Deman said although the small nonprofit developed online programs within a few weeks of closing, community fundraising and a Paycheck Protection Program loan were the museum's only sources of revenue for weeks. 

“We had to do staff reductions, and we had to minimize our expenses,” Van Deman said. “We also increased our fundraising efforts, since we were losing all our prior earned income.” 

In addition to a virtual benefit night Sept. 25, the museum is selling $5 activity packets and encouraging participants to donate more if they have the means to do so. 

Van Deman said she hopes to reopen the space in the coming months. She said her greatest concern is the dynamic and hands-on nature of Kidzu, and that rigorous cleaning protocols will need to be implemented before visitors can expect to return in person. 

“The whole premise of the children’s museum is experiential — it is hands-on and making and doing,” Deman said. “We're going to have to rethink the visitor experience a bit.” 


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