A recent study by the American Alliance of Museums — the organization that oversees museums of all sizes down south — suggests that a full third of U.S. museums could end up shuttered due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While local museums in Manitoba may not be suffering quite as badly as their southern neighbours, the situation remains dire, say many directors and curators.
Winnipeg’s Dalnavert Museum, located in the former home of Hugh John Macdonald — the eighth premier of Manitoba and son of Canada’s first prime minister — is among those that have weathered the hard times so far.
“All not-for-profits are looking at a very unusual year, and Dalnavert is not alone in that,” museum director Thomas McLeod told 680 CJOB.
“We’ve been eligible for a number of the government wage subsidies and funding programs… and we’ve been lucky to qualify for those. Those have been key in us being able to reopen the museum once the provincial regulations allowed.
“Without that government funding, we would’ve been up the creek. Not all museums are as lucky as us.”
McLeod said that although the museum was closed for months due to the coronavirus, the building — a national historic site built in the 1890s — still needed to be maintained, as did the collections inside.
The museum was paying for minimal staff, but with no money coming in from visitors. Once museums were allowed to reopen in Manitoba, McLeod said, Dalnavert also had to invest in personal protective equipment for its staff and volunteers.
“Admissions are down and they’re down for a few reasons: people aren’t necessarily feeling comfortable coming to places like museums, galleries and movie theatres… and with social distancing, we may not be able to welcome the same numbers of visitors at one time,” he said.
Dalnavert is known for large events, particularly around holidays, which are unlikely to happen in 2020, at least not for the foreseeable future.
McLeod said the museum has been encouraging people to visit safely, by scheduling guided tours in advance, to make sure social distancing can be followed and so tour groups feel comfortable visiting.
“It’s certainly some scary times for small museums that really rely on that seasonal attendance or special event attendance,” he said.
Eric Napier Strong, the curator of the Seven Oaks House Museum, said the small amount of public and government support has been the saving grace for museums like his during the pandemic, but due to the nature of the building, some of the other health and safety measures have been a challenge.
“Seven Oaks House is the oldest house in all of Winnipeg, and these old spaces aren’t exactly built for social distancing or sanitizing,” he said.
“Everything there is 150… 200 years old, even, in really small rooms, so it’s been tough for us to bring in groups. We’ve had to get a little creative.”
Strong said the museum has set up walking and biking tours of the area, and even converted the house’s windows into display cases.
“I think people have been really interested in it… but people are looking for something they feel comfortable with. You can take a walking tour, you can bike around town and you can still get as cool of a historical experience doing that.”
The danger, he said, of museums closing down is that they’re not something that can simply be reopened somewhere else once the pandemic eases up.
“Once it’s gone, it’s lost forever. This is our heritage; it’s our shared history.”