Covid and Museums: A Gentle Re-Opening

It seems that so many of us are working through some kind of COVID-19 reopening plan right now. I thought I would do a case study to see how a museum in my part of the world is dealing with the challenge. Here is an interview with Dr. Kelly Black, executive director at Point Ellice House in Victoria, BC.

Photo: Point Ellice House

So what’s the plan? How will you reopen your house museum, and how will you adjust to the new reality?

We’re reopening on July 4th. We’ve decided to start small and only open Saturdays from 12-4 pm. Normally we’re open two days a week, but we wanted to start with one day to see what the demand is. Visitors can book tickets of up to six people—a household, or I guess the term we’re using now is “bubble”. So this keeps us within the current limits in British Columbia: if we max out all our spots, that would be 48 visitors which keeps us under the 50 person limit. 

Point Ellice House has a historic grounds and garden, a visitor centre, and the House itself. For now, we’ve decided to keep the House itself closed. We feel there are too many factors relating to public health measures and the cleaning and sanitizing of heritage surfaces. We have such limited resources here that it would be too great an endeavour to try to open the house now.

Timed Viewing, By Appointment

So we are opening our Visitor Centre exhibit area, and offer the feature exhibit space to the public by appointment. Guests can book 30 minutes inside the Visitor Centre in groups of up to four, to see our new exhibit, Springs and Scavengers. That will be their time, all to themselves, with nobody other than a staff member at the front desk. Once their 30 minutes is up, which is quite a good chunk of time for our space, we will disinfect the touch surfaces, and the next group will come in—and the first visitors will be able to go to the grounds. We use the point of sale system Square, and we learned they have a bookings feature: guests can reserve their time as they pay for their ticket in advance.

An Outdoor Story Walk

We’ve taken our outgoing exhibit, The Politics of Luxury, and reformatted the graphics into outdoor panels, borrowed from an early childhood education idea: story walks. The Vancouver Island Regional LIbary does them. You take a story and break it out page by page, and put the pages on blown up cards. Then you put them around a park or a yard. Visitors go on a walk and read the story as they go. So we’re borrowing that concept and putting the outgoing exhibit around the property—once they leave the Visitor Centre they can walk the grounds and see the historic site along with the exhibit story. We will have a volunteer or two on the lawn (with distancing barriers in place) to talk to visitors about the history of the site. 

A New Virtual Tour

We’re also partnering with the University of Victoria Digital Scholarship Lab, who are coming to take 360 degree videos of the inside of Point Ellice House itself. Even though the house will be closed, visitors will be go on their mobile or their computer at home and see the inside the house.

How big is your reopening planning team?

There’s myself and two part-time staff, plus a volunteer who does web and technology who has ben helping us prepare the website for the videos and the FAQs that will go with the re-opening program.

How will you promote your reopening?

We’ll do publicity through the usual means: media releases, sharing on social media, sharing with our annual pass holders. Hopefully we’ll get media coverage and word of mouth. Our approach at Point Ellice House since 219 has been a focus on getting local people familiar with what we’re all about. Before Covid-19, we felt we were starting to build momentum and get on people’s radar. So with things opening up again, we think there will be push from people to reacquaint themselves with what’s happening locally. We hope this will encourage people to seek out new experience like the one at Point Ellice House. 

What advice would you give other small heritage sites looking at re-opening?

It was important for us to talk through the reopening with staff a number of times. There are so many things to consider about reopening for a historic house that has gardens, grounds, a visitor centre, the house itself, and so on. We kept discovering new factors we needed to consider—things we could and couldn’t do. It takes more than one person thinking through this problem.

If you have staff or volunteers or even your partner at home, talk through it: what if this happens, how will it feel to person X. We feel that we’ve done good job of thinking through the issues together as a team. It doesn’t mean we won’t have to adjust. The collaboration was valuable to me as the only full-time staff—to draw on people who think about things that I might have not thought about. 

Looking to the Community

I’ve been looking not only to what others are doing in historic sites, but also the community around us. One of our neighbours is a brewery and distillery—we’re able to get hand sanitizer for the site from them.

We’ve also had to get creative. The house is closed, so we’ve taken Plexiglas normally used to protect historic plaster and repurposed it for the front desk to protect staff and visitors. So we’re really looking to what’s right in front of us and what’s surrounding us. The Univerity of Victoria 360 degree video is also an example of our standing relationship with the UVic History Department and its public history program—we do various projects together and I have been introduced to the digital scholarship lab. We asked if they would be interested in using equipment that we don’t have the budget for, to come over and help us with this idea; they were keen. Looking to the community has been valuable for us.

Kelly, thank you for sharing your reopening plans with us. Good luck with this.

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