‘Museums without walls’: Vermont institutions go virtual during coronavirus outbreak

Discovering the solar system, making elephant toothpaste, and talks from historians no longer require a drive to one of the state’s museums. Instead, Vermont is going virtual with many of its museums sending experiences to the visitor at home.

With school closed for the rest of the school year and a “stay at home” order issued by the governor in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, families and schools are looking for additional educational resources to keep learning at home fresh and exciting. Museums around the state are stepping up to fill that need, providing their unique content, in many cases, for free.

COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Symptoms can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Changing the model

Up till now, museums have relied upon their ability to curate interesting exhibits, hands-on projects and interactive lectures within the walls of their own institution. But, quickly they have had to shift their approach, developing ways to bring experiences to the visitor. These Vermont museums are continuing to work, fulfilling their mission to educate the community, mostly without receiving revenue in return.

“Our nonprofit mission reflects a goal to serve as a ‘museum without walls’ for our region, and that ideal may be more important — and impactful — now than ever before,” said Alex Lehning, executive director of the Saint Albans Museum. 

Learners can use “History From Home” materials available on the the St. Albans Museum website to engage in local history topics. One of the first activities instructs kids on how to curate their own museum from objects found at home. Articles, videos and links are available as well as “Weekend Activities” and the “Armchair History” video series where community members share life experiences within historical context.

While continuing to provide exploration of the heritage of northwestern Vermont, the museum is “committed to supporting our community in any way we can during this public health crisis, especially students, educators, and families who have transitioned to home or online learning” Lehning said.

Fairbanks Museum

The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium is reaching its audience through Zoom, YouTube live streaming and Kingdom Access Television to provide lessons in astronomy, weather lore, how to get a rocket to Mars, Girl Scout merit badge fulfillments and more. Their kindergarten through grade 8 programming is designed for students to interact with the instructor via chat live.

New content rolls out March 30; the St. Johnsbury museum hopes a television partnership will help it reach a broader audience.

Drew Bush, the museum’s Director of Programs wrote, “many of our educational programs for K-8 and the public will be offered on Kingdom Access Television (KTA). We’ve chosen online platforms and this partnership with KTA as a result of the inequalities our region faces in access to good Internet service.”

ECHO center

ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington has taken a two prong approach, providing “fun and engaging material” to schools that have asked the center to curate curriculum specific to their needs and for families looking for supplemental science experiences.

To get content to families, ECHO is exploring a variety of methods, Erik Oliver, director of development and communications said. One way is to send out regular communications through social media with science and engineering experiments that could be done at home. A collection of “Science Hacks” videos are currently available online.

In addition, the center hopes to post videos of some of its more than 70 species of animals for observation, including posing questions students could answer through social media. “Science and Stories” occurs every Wednesday as an online event, and the center also has a goal of sharing citizen science opportunities — ways for explorers to interact with nature, such as tracking amphibian migrations, or online to code new galaxy behavior.

ECHO is promoting more than its own content and hopes to provide families a variety of learning opportunities. It is sharing resources from partners across the state including Vermont PBS, The Montshire Museum, Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, Vermont Institute of Natural Science, as well as national organizations like NASA.

Virtual Tour

Another way audiences can interact with their favorite museums is through a virtual tour. This format is especially helpful for visitors of art and history museums.

Sarah Laursen and Sarah Briggs, both of Middlebury College Museum of Art, launched the website VermontArtOnline.org on March 25, as a way to allow exploration of galleries from the safety of home. The project is a collaboration with the Vermont Curators Group in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

“As curators and educators with digital media experience, we thought our skills could be of service to our fellow curators. The fact that we have such a close-knit network in Vermont made it possible to carry out this collaboration in such a short time frame,” Sarah Laursen said.

By website launch, 16 Vermont institutions were participating. Visitors to the site can see a map of the state with icons for each museum, exploring each one upon clicking on it.

“Visitors to www.VermontArtOnline.org can explore virtual galleries at art, history, and science museums across the state, interact with spaces and exhibitions, click on objects for deeper exploration, and link to museum websites for more information and educational resources,” Sarah Briggs said.

The business side

Many museum staff are working from home, like most Vermonters, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is the official name of the disease related to the coronavirus that first started to affect people in China at the end of 2019. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. 

For most, home time has not been idle; the lack of physical visitors has not slowed down the roll out of dynamic programming.

“That’s what happens when you have a bunch of really smart people, really clever people, sequestered at home wanting to do great work.” Oliver said of the ECHO team.

He said this challenge has opened creative avenues for staff and they have turned challenges into opportunities.

Bush, of the Fairbanks Planetarium, also echoed a similar sentiment saying this time has provided an opportunity to work on exhibits and collections while the museum is closed.

Still, reality dictates the level of service cannot be maintained without consistent income. 

The St. Albans Museum had to postpone, reschedule and cancel events as well as fundraising drives that support much of its operation.

” As a nonprofit organization that relies on seasonal tourism, as well as grants and memberships – we do anticipate that COVID-19 will have a significant financial impact on our operations…especially given how much uncertainty we are facing,” Lehning said.

But, he said they are committed to their mission.

“I believe that museums will have a vital role to play in how we can come together, to heal and move forward – as institutions that value community memory, common experiences, and preserving & sharing the stories that define us,” Lehning wrote. “Eventually, museums will once again be able to serve as physical gathering spaces as well.”

Links

Connect with Vermont museums online through links below.

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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