September 11, 2020 / News & Blog

Nothing Yet to Close: Emerging Museums Pause and Regroup

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

Emerging museums at all stages are now dealing with a host of interrelated problems based on the pandemic. Funding:  Those in capital campaigns face compelling and highly competitive funding priorities.  Exhibit/program design: revised design and safety standards for “hands-on” exhibits and interactive programming are being developed, but are still incomplete.  Their communities, still unfamiliar with a children’s museum and its role as a key learning partner, are reeling from health concerns and economic shutdowns.  How do you feel the loss of something you don’t yet have? Founding board members, directors, and other stakeholders are asking questions to determine strategies for forging ahead, revising but keeping the plan alive perhaps on an altered timeline, or pulling the plug.

Children’s Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley (Parkersburg, WV)

Tres Ross, Executive Director, The Ross Foundation

Children’s Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley blueprint
First floor blueprint for Children’s Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley (Parkersburg, WV)

Parkersburg, the central city in Wood County, West Virginia, is a relatively large city in a mostly rural state. It is located in the Mid-Ohio Valley, along the Ohio River which forms the Ohio-West Virginia border. Initially built on chemical and plastics manufacturing, the major industry now centers on extracting natural gas from shale.

The total population for Parkersburg-Vienna, West Virginia MSA, is 91,353, based on 2018 census data. The museum target demographics count 5,157 children under age five and 5,047 children between the ages of five and nine.

Other cultural venues include the Parkersburg Art Center, a community theater, another theater for plays and musical shows, and a waterfront music program.

COVID-19 Impact

Both Parkersburg and the state of West Virginia initially had a relatively small number of cases compared to the rest of the country. We have since seen an uptick as businesses began opening again. Beginning July 9, masks were required indoors.

The impact is still uncertain for businesses. West Virginia’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research is optimistic that a V-shaped (quicker) rebound will happen, but this will depend on the number of new cases, possibly requiring business activity to roll back again. Some local funders are focusing exclusively on health and basic needs, but others report they are not seeing many requests for funds from other organizations so far. A decent number of nonprofits in our community received PPP or EIDL loans, but their survival now depends on their reserves. 

The Ross Foundation will help with the restart of businesses and nonprofits. A big area of concern is how to operate and sustain entities in the arts community, especially if they do not have reserves. Two local theater groups in particular, even with PPP or EIDL loans, will not be able to host shows at full capacity for a while, possibly not until next spring, and they have no reserves.

The big questions we’re facing in the next two years are the following:

  • Are businesses stable enough to sponsor large exhibits?
  • When will families with young children feel comfortable attending large facilities?
  • Does opening up make sense when capacity may be limited?

The children’s museum is not open yet and can watch how other groups are faring. The art center is now open at a limited capacity, but their summer camp was well attended.    

We’re listening what other arts organizations, hospitality groups, and school systems are doing. As of mid-July, Wood County Schools will begin the 2020-21 school year on a staggered schedule, with some students coming to school on specific days. Otherwise, the reentry plan works on a stoplight system: Green is school as normal, yellow is a hybrid of in-person and online instruction, and red is fully online. The community college will open virtually this fall. Hotels report some increases in reservations, and some planned events remain on the books.


Funding an $8 million project in this very hard-hit economy remains a big challenge. The foundation’s board chair recently decided to accelerate the museum opening timeline. The Ross Foundation and the Ross family will now provide at least 80 percent of the funding for the project, and the completed museum will now open in two years. It was decided that the original plan to raise money from sponsors in the community would face too many challenges in the current economic climate and delay the museum’s opening an unacceptable length of time. 

Renovations to the building, a former Masonic Temple in downtown Parkersburg, will begin soon. The museum’s six floors will house exhibit space, office space, conference rooms, a café, and a 450-seat theater. 

Because we will be renovating an historic building, we are eligible to receive a little over $1 million in historic tax credits over the twenty-four month project period. The estimated cost for the renovations, architectural drawings, accounting, and legal fees is $3.9 million. (Accounting and legal fees can be higher when historic tax credits are involved, but costs can be included in the tax credits calculation.) Exhibits are projected to cost approximately $4 million. We will continue to look for sponsors for our newly-defined exhibit topics, and we anticipate some local response. However, the Ross Foundation and family will cover what cannot be raised in order to open the museum on time.

Our exhibits are not designed or built yet, providing an opportunity to learn more about the best materials and cleaning supplies to help maintain heightened quality and safety standards that will be now acceptable to families. Working with Roto Design, we are now in the process of developing master planning documents. Exhibit planning and development begins in October; exhibits will be developed by June 2022 and installed by late August 2022.

How do we demonstrate our future relevance with no track record? The community knows our foundation would not invest in a project it does not see as relevant. This confidence will help position the children’s museum as a key community asset. Furthermore, Parkersburg needs more entities that serve children and families. The art center offers family programs but not on a regular basis; the children’s museum will offer programs and exhibits continuously. In short, the children’s museum will be a cornerstone downtown development project that will create an anchor institution for area families.

Creative Learning Alliance (Joplin, MO)

Audie Dennis, Board Chair

In 2017, community leaders in Joplin, Missouri, embarked on a grassroots effort to identify goals for community growth and improvement. The resulting Vision 2022 report spanned an array of approaches, from economic development to quality of life. One concept that was well received and supported by Joplin City Council officials was the creation of a children’s museum.

Encouraged, a group of professionals, citizens, and educators began paving the way for a hands-on, STEAM-based destination. The focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math was driven by an education gap in those areas and employer demand for a better prepared workforce in those fields. Further, our community has a shared experience of severe weather events, notably an EF-5 tornado in 2011 that destroyed a wide swath of the city center.

The nonprofit Creative Learning Alliance (CLA) was formed with a vision to engage people of all ages in hands-on learning, driven by curiosity and play. The board of directors developed a five-year timeline, to culminate in 2025 with the grand opening of a new science center. A feasibility study indicated that it would attract partners and visitors from a fifty-mile radius in southwestern Missouri as well as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. 

After securing funding for its first project coordinator, scheduled to begin in July 2020, CLA had ambitious plans to participate in large regional events. These appearances would kick-start a volunteer cadre, build community support for the science center concept, excite the public with portable, hands-on exhibits, and engage stakeholders to pave the way for a capital campaign.

However, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic quashed these plans and brought the terrific momentum of the group to an abrupt halt. Although southwest Missouri was not initially hit hard by the pandemic, stay-at-home orders forced the cancellation of large public events in the region. The team explored several alternative community outreach strategies, including video exhibit demonstrations, learning modules to engage kids and parents, and increasing social media engagement to build support.

Through thoughtful, honest conversations, the outreach committee ultimately decided that with one chance to make a first impression, none of the alternatives were a good fit. Schools, as well as established organizations and children’s museums in the U.S. and abroad, are already offering online access to STEAM classes and activities, filling that niche.

Regrouping, the board decided to hold affinity events, where one to two community leaders would host small peer groups, to continue to raise awareness and funds. Aligned with local COVID-19 prevention guidelines, these events feature colorful exhibits that ignite conversations and introduce supporters to our vision. With the help of CLA’s new project coordinator, affinity events this summer and fall will propel the project forward, as the organization continues its search for its first location.

In the meantime, the outreach committee will continue to evolve materials that highlight the science behind the exhibits, developing a website and social media presence that will fully support community outreach when these uncertain times have passed.

Glacier Children’s Museum (Flathead County, MT)

Corrie Holloway, Board Chair

Glacier Children’s Museum

Glacier Children’s Museum is a 501(c)(3) with a founding board and a small mobile outreach program, but no paid staff or permanent location. We are in the process of planning a series of exhibits to build support and attract donors to fund the creation of a permanent museum.

Without an exact location, we had not yet established a projected opening date. We had considered opening smaller, simpler “starter” spaces in 2021. However, we have decided to use the pandemic pause to recruit more board members, do more research, and plan more thoroughly. Opening dates for even starter spaces have been pushed back. Recently, two board members decided to leave the project, reinforcing our current priority to find new ones.

We are located in northwestern Montana in a county of about 102,000 residents spread among three small cities and several rural towns. The county is within an hour’s drive of Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, as well as the Salish Kootenai and Blackfeet Reservations. More than three million people visit the area each year, and that number is rising. Many local businesses rely on tourism. Ours would be the first museum in the area geared toward interactive children’s learning.

COVID-19 Impact

As of early June, Montana has had a very low rate of COVID-19-attributed cases and deaths. At the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., our governor was quick to shut down most of the state. With schools changing to online learning and businesses closed since March 13, along with a non-essential travel ban and a quarantine order for anyone coming in from out of state, our infection numbers remained low.

However, many people and businesses are suffering financially because of the shutdown. Our community foundation raised more than $500,000 for local nonprofits during the Day of Giving, showing donors’ high level of support and commitment to this valley. On June 1, Montana began Phase 2 of reopening. We expect to see a large increase of the number of people traveling here due to outdoor recreation opportunities and our relatively low COVID-19 numbers.

In deciding how and when to proceed, these are our top questions:

  • Will we be able to raise the money needed to open a permanent location when there are so many essential resources the community needs in the immediate future? Will donors still see the museum as a feasible endeavor?
  • Will people still want to go to a children’s museum based on fear of contagion?
  • How can we provide a safe and clean experience for our visitors?
  • What types of exhibits can be more easily cleaned or require less contact for interaction?
  • Can we continue to find people to volunteer their time and energy to move the project forward during these uncertain times—especially if the project goes into a holding pattern?

We are closely following recommendations and guidelines from our local school systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and our local health department. We are staying in contact with the Association of Children’s Museums  and other museums, observing how established museums are adapting as they reopen and what solutions the museum community is devising to support each other and the industry as a whole.

Since we are in the earliest startup stages and have enough money to sustain baseline costs, we could stay in this holding pattern for quite a while. It all depends on how we spend what we have. If we continue to get free storage for outreach supplies, hold off on hiring staff, and only spend money on administrative costs (website, post office, taxes, etc.), this extended planning period could last up to five years.

Some of our funds come from grants that need to be spent within the next year. We are wondering how long we can realistically complete our museum dreams without any paid staff and relying solely on board members’ volunteer hours, especially when the board turns over every two years.

We are already rethinking what our space and exhibits will look like, and discussing which interactive exhibits require less hands-on contact and are easier to clean. We are considering replacing the phrase “hands-on” with “interactive” in our mission statement.

The University of New England, Boilerhouse Discovery Space (Armidale, NSW, Australia)

Dr. Kirsti Abbott, Program Leader

Remediated Boilerhouse, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia

The Boilerhouse Discovery Space is an integral part of the University of New England’s future campus plans. The project was initiated in 2016 by a philanthropist who supports children’s play-based discovery.

Over the past four years, we have raised more than AUD$10 million. We are in the process of identifying a principal design consultant, who we hope to onboard by the end of August 2020, to work collaboratively to design the building. During this time, we have run mobile programs. We also cleaned up the space, an old, disused industrial boilerhouse, contaminated with every bad thing you can think of! Remediation and demolition, covered by the university, took eighteen months and cost an additional AUD$2 million.

With a population of 30,000, Armidale, a regional university town in New South Wales, Australia, founded on agriculture and goldmining, is now a key educational hub. The university is the biggest employer, and the town is home to four private schools, a major state high school, thirteen primary schools, and many early childhood education centers. We are approximately six hours from Sydney to the south and Brisbane to the north.

COVID-19 has impacted our community in several ways. After simmering differences related to vision and management, COVID-19 exacerbated a few conflicts. Our town council disbanded and the CEO resigned. An outside government administrator is temporarily running the town without local councilors. The university has lost its on-campus students, and many residents have lost jobs due to slow business or shutdowns. There has been significant economic downturn.

Despite these challenging circumstances, the Boilerhouse project remains viable. We have secured sufficient funding to get this far (with only $5 million more needed to complete the project). The processes required to progress to this stage are all suited to online, remote work.

Our COVID-revised opening date is now mid-2023. The top three issues for the project over the next three years are:

  • Ownership by the university and incorporation into its core business. Typically, Australian universities have not invested directly in child development projects such as science centers.
  • General budget issues. The budget for our small regional university, although the largest employer in our region, is typically insufficient to allow for innovative projects like the Boilerhouse.
  • Our nascent culture of philanthropy. So far, the private donations and government funds we have raised are tagged for the project and cannot be diverted to other university uses. Even still, if the Boilerhouse Discovery Space is going to be a sustainable venture, it requires a significant shift in investment, expertise, and engagement in the overall philanthropic advancement of our campus. We are competing among scholarships, research, and teaching needs. 

We are largely dependent on university planning decisions for overall progress on the building itself. However, our team is somewhat autonomous in generating mobile programs and partnerships. We listen closely to our regional and state departments of education and government guidelines for planning future investment in children’s discovery programs and infrastructure.

With our opening date still two years away, we are lucky to have not yet done much exhibit or program planning. Once we have a design consultant on board, we anticipate moving forward, keeping in mind health advice and potential future social and physical distancing regulation.

kidSTREAM, Ventura County’s Children’s Museum (Camarillo, CA)

Michael Shanklin, Executive Director

Ventura County is a beautiful coastal community with an ideal climate for growing an array of agricultural crops. Home to several universities and a network of community colleges and with both beaches and mountains nearby, it is an amazing place to live and play. But it does not have a children’s museum within an hour’s drive to serve its 850,000 residents.

The kidSTREAM board determined early on to start small and prove ourselves to the community. Since incorporating in 2016, kidSTREAM has served more than 33,000 guests through Phase I museum without walls programming. Ultimately, the board planned to open a $15 million museum within a former city library in 2021. In 2018, a “Vision Room,” approximately 1,500 square feet of mostly indoor and some outdoor space, opened in the library to demonstrate what an interactive children’s museum experience entailed. In January 2020, the board decided to proceed to the next level. I joined the team in mid-February and began work on Phase II, the exhibit plan. We had hoped to open something by the summer of this year, however COVID-19 has pushed our plans back to 2021. 

As kidSTREAM’s first paid team member, my first day on the job was February 20, a month before community leaders issued the “Safer at Home” order. 

COVID-19 Impact

The pandemic has caused many donors to channel funding to direct service organizations, which has made fundraising for an emerging museum more challenging. However, the pandemic pause has given kidSTREAM the opportunity to reevaluate our plans for exhibit design and the guest experience. 

COVID-19 has significantly increased the amount of screen time children experience as schools have adapted from the traditional in-person instructional model. As we think about designing exhibit experiences for the new museum, how does this shift affect what our audience might want in a future museum visit? Current circumstances have prompted us to develop our outdoor space first. These spaces will be safer for guests, making them more comfortable coming to the new museum. We are also considering how we might make exhibits interactive but not necessarily hands-on. In hands-on exhibits, children literally touch everything; in interactive exhibits, such as light and shadow walls, children can actively engage without touching anything. Hands-on play is still incredibly compelling and here to stay, but it is getting a partial time out while the world recovers. 

Another silver lining is that we are able to rethink our cleaning protocols as we learn from other museums that are opening before us. 

Throughout these uncertain past few months, we never considered backing away from our plans. We are using this additional time to plan, fundraise, and solicit feedback from the community. Moving forward, however, the top issues that concern us are:

  • How can we fundraise during a pandemic?
  • How will the pandemic impact our project timeline?
  • When will families comfortable coming back to a hands-on learning environment (if at all)?

The ACM Leadership Calls have been tremendously helpful in tracking issues facing the field in general. We learn from each other’s success and challenges, and find some support in the process. This unanticipated pause has also given me the opportunity to work closely with our founder and board members to be more closely aligned.

Our field is an innovative nexus of learning, fun, kindness, and sharing. We will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger, more guest friendly, and better suited for future challenges. If we model this behavior well, we might help future generations to become more resilient.