We’re open. As a museum, as an educational institution, even as a tourism destination, we are open. It took me a little while to wrap my stressed out, how do we survive a global pandemic, thoughts around this.

The very day the COVID-19 pandemic closed our physical doors, we became a virtual museum. It’s a challenge that every small museum now faces; we have to close our doors, then reinvent our process to become a virtual platform. In my 24 years of museum life, I’ve yet to have the challenge of creating and running a virtual museum. Let alone getting the task dropped on me in the middle of the biggest health crisis in the last century. How do we change direction to create more usable online platforms that engage our already established audience? How do we attract new visitors? How do we thoughtfully transfer content in ways an online visitor will enjoy? How do we new kick-start a new fundraising strategy to ensure the cash flow for needed staff and IT resources? To call it daunting understates with grace.

The role reversal means I needed to change our original COVID – 19 social media message of being closed to state that the Virtual Museum is open.  Adjusting the hours is a bit trickier. I don’t think it’s misleading to say a Virtual Museum is open 24 hours, but it sure looks that way if you say it on the marketing headers. So, yes, the museum is closed. But that’s just the previous museum model. The new model, the online model, is open.

Open 24 hours.

If small museums begin operating with this open around the clock mentality, I think we all have a chance of making it through the crisis. And I think we have a genuine shot of becoming even stronger institutions as a result of the adaptation.

I’ve quickly learned that running a small museum has meant I’ve been thinking small; expecting small crowds of visitors, designing exhibits that fit in a small space, creating programs and tours catering to small groups, running small fundraisers, and the list goes on. Closing the brick and mortar door means suddenly running a museum of unlimited capacity. As a leader, I need to begin thinking bigger. Much bigger.

In our humble house of history, we first did what we knew how to do; give tours. We immediately began making short video tours of the galleries. We grabbed our one camera, set up in front of the exhibits, and pushed record. We being two-thirds of our staff; myself giving the tour, and Jessica Dresen, our Visitor Services Manager, working the camera. We had a number of tours active on the website in two days. We have more in the cue for the final video edit process before getting posted. Because of very limited time in the museum building before the Governor’s Stay at Home order was given, most of our videos are done without proper lighting, and literally in one take.

That’s a major issue small museums face going online; we may not own the tech and equipment to make it happen easily. This should not, however, slow us down. I urge small museums to jump in, don’t second guess, and use the resources you have to make new things happen. Most of us in the smaller institutions know how to be tour guides. Use your strengths, and just pretend the camera is your group tour. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. We have a our share of shaky camera spots, funky shadows, weird audio glitches, but hey, that’s life right now and we’re going with it. We even put a little advertising money behind one of our not so perfect virtual tours on social media.

Thirty thousand people watched it.

That’s about 29,950 more folks that would have normally have seen it at the museum that day. It’s a crucial lesson we’ve learned in these past weeks; now is the time to bring the museum to a brand new audience. An audience much larger than we’ve ever had in our nearly 40 years of sharing history with our guests on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.

In the past two weeks we have taken several important steps towards growing our virtual presence.

  • Brainstormed new online fundraisers
  • Created virtual video tours
  • Digitized museum exhibit panels into online tour experiences
  • Outlined new advertising opportunities for online sponsors
  • Created two new exhibits solely designed to be shared online
  • Created a Virtual Intern platform to allow us to open and hire for work-from-home internship opportunities

And these are only the first steps. These next weeks or even months may mean that small museums around the country will not be able to open their brick and mortar doors. It is crucial that small museums do not embrace this historic time with the idea of being closed. Ladies, gentlemen, museum professionals all, we are not closed.

We are most definitely, most proudly, most resiliently, open.

Open 24 hours.