Can Massachusetts museums survive amid COVID restrictions? Getting creative may not be enough

In August, legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma and 10,000 Maniacs performed outside at Hancock Shaker Village. Thousands tuned in to hear the performances but only 35 people were in the audience.


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“At one point [a member of 10,000 Maniacs] looked up from his little electric keyboard and said, ‘This is really weird,’” said Jennifer Trainer Thompson, director of Hancock Shaker Village. “And it is weird, but it was necessary.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, museums are looking for innovative ways to keep their doors open and how to offer relevant programming.

But that hasn’t been easy.

More than six months ago, museums in Massachusetts were forced to close their doors. The temporary closures led to layoffs.

Hancock Shaker Village laid off four full-time employees. They were able to rehire all the full-time staff but out of the usual 35 seasonal workers, they only brought back 12 this year. MASS MoCA laid off 120 employees earlier this year. With the help of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, they were able to begin rehiring. And the Museum of Fine Arts Boston laid off more than 100 employees.

Museums were allowed to reopen in July but with restrictions. Although, not all did.

Worcester’s EcoTarium decided it won’t reopen until at least 2021.

“I think this pandemic isn’t anywhere near over. I don’t agree with the governor’s decision,” president of the EcoTarium Lucy Hale said. “As much as I want us to reopen, I don’t think it’s the best thing in terms of the virus.”

As of Monday, gyms, museums, libraries and driving and flight schools are permitted to increase their capacity to 50% as part of moving to Step 2 of Phase 3. Indoor and outdoor performance venue capacity will also increase to 50%, capped at 250 people. The newest step also only applies in lower-risk COVID communities.

But even those in lower-risk communities are saying the increased capacity isn’t much of a change.

“We’re presenting in a courtyard that has a capacity of normally like 3,900,” said Sue Killam, MASS MoCA’s managing director of performing arts.

MASS MoCA is located in North Adams, which saw 62 cases of COVID last week or an average daily incident rate of 2 per 100,000. While places such as Springfield and Worcester saw 3,532 and 6,398 cases, respectively. Both cities had an average daily incident rate of 8 per 100,000.

Still, it’s been important to these lower-risk communities to have different regulations.

“I’ve been delighted with how cautious Baker has been and how clear he’s been,” said Thompson. “And as he continues to delineate between different regions, that matters a lot to those of us in the Berkshires.”

While some restrictions are relaxing, public opinion varies.

In June, MassLive found that 56.6% of survey respondents were not comfortable with the idea of eating out and 78% of respondents said they are still uncomfortable getting on a bus, subway or train.

Thompson said she’s had a number of guests tell her that visiting was their first non-essential venture out since the shutdowns in March.

Still, museums are saying they’re still not seeing the number of attendees needed.

“The performing arts, similar to movie theaters, people just aren’t quite ready, I think, to go sit inside,” Killam said.

Killam said she’s been impressed with public willingness to follow the safety protocols and the museum’s ability to step up their cleaning procedures.

“We have the luxury of so much space,” she said. “There’s times, even on a really busy day, you feel like you have a gallery to yourself or part of the museum to yourself.”

The museums have gotten creative with the restrictions to offer relevant, seasonal and interesting programming.

Old Sturbridge Village replaced its “Sleepy Hollow Experience” with a new Halloween experience to follow COVID-19 guidelines.

The main event will be called “Nevermore,” and consists of a series of six outdoor performances that “bring to life the short stories and poems of author Edgar Allen Poe, told from the perspective of characters who have just witnessed these terrors occur,” the press release stated.

The village also launched a “One Room School House” initiative to help staff’s children who aren’t attending in-person learning in their own schools.

Hancock Shaker Village has leaned heavily on outdoor events.

“We have 650 acres, and there’s a lot to do outdoors and people are really interested in outdoor activities,” Thompson said.

They are even planning outdoor holiday events, including a Winter Wonderland Day with outdoor components and possibly an indoor concert.

“I think those of us who live here have always known that the outdoors are an equal attraction and an equal inspiration,” she said. “The silver lining of this pandemic has been that it has forced us to look in new ways at the property that we have.”

Another new event was a hike to one of the Shaker holy grounds.

“All 19 Shaker communities had this holy ground,” she said. “They picked the highest mountain near their village, and they cleared it. And twice a year, they would walk up and they would bring their elderly and children in ox carts, up to the top of the mountain, and they would worship and dance all day long.”

So, Hancock Shaker Village decided to start up the tradition again.

“And it was extraordinary,” Thompson said. “It was utterly fantastic. And I think we all felt after we did it that these are the kinds of gems that people are starting to seek out. And that’s a good thing.”

Related Content:

Old Sturbridge Village replaces ‘Sleepy Hollow Experience’ with new Halloween experience to follow COVID-19 guidelines

‘Looking for the staycation’: Worcester County relying on locals to supplement fall tourism with trips to pumpkin patches, breweries, restaurants

Worcester’s medical director advises residents to avoid large venues as Massachusetts enters Step 2 of Phase 3 of its reopening plans


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