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Museums Find Silver Lining During COVID-19 Shutdown

During the pandemic, local museums went digital to connect with their guests. Here, artists involved in the MAH's "Beyond the World's End" exhibit hold a talk online.


Museums in Monterey County have been ordered to close again. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has forced museums around the region to reassess how they connect with their guests, even while their doors are shut.


Whitney Ford-Terry is the exhibition manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. They recently led a talk with artists from the museum's exhibit "Beyond the World's End." But this time, the talk took place in a Zoom conference online instead of an in-person meet up inside of the museum. 

In the meeting, a dozen or so artists in boxes fill a computer screen. The exhibit features art about the end of the world. In an ironic twist, it opened just a week before the museum was ordered to close in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"And we ended up switching a lot of the content for that show to an online platform," Ford-Terry said.

Museums like the MAH have had to quickly adjust how they operate, including the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. It’s a key stop for children’s school trips, noted for its hundreds of taxidermied birds and a nearly 8 foot-tall, stuffed brown grizzly bear just inside the entrance. 

Juan Govea is director of community engagement for the museum. He said the museum saw its own shutdown on the horizon when California ordered everyone to shelter-in-place. Once they closed, the staff took time to care for personal concerns; and then, they asked...

"How do we do what we've been doing for years in a digital, distance base?" said Govea.

As an answer to that question, they came up with Museum to You, a combination of live content through Zoom and pre-recorded videos like Bug Out With Bree, featuring Bree Machuca, the museum’s resident bug specialist. Govea said this virtual space has been more successful than the museum could have imagined. They’ve had thousands of web visitors since the shut-down. That’s up from just a few hundred views before shelter-in-place.


Like many museums, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History had to move programming online when shelter-in-place orders took effect.

“It has been an unexpected silver lining,” Govea said. He added they have enjoyed having guest speakers from across California on the "Museum to You" digital platform, which they wouldn’t normally be able to host in person.  


In nearby Salinas, the National Steinbeck Center also had to shut their doors in response to the pandemic. Within a week, they came up with a virtual membership. Members can get behind-the-scenes content without having to book a private, in-person tour with a curator at the center’s two story complex in downtown Salinas, which is dedicated to the work of author John Steinbeck.


Cat Harper is the guest services and events manager for the Steinbeck Center. She said this virtual membership allows anyone in the world to learn about what kind of pencil John Steinbeck used or what article he used to write The Grapes of Wrath, among other things. Harper said it’s exciting to see how this virtual content has helped the center bloom unexpectedly.

"We need to keep up the rich virtual content because it's been such a wonderful way of connecting with guests from all over the world," Harper said.


Credit Steinbeck Center
The Steinbeck Center will hold it's annual festival online this year.

People from around the world will be able to enjoy the center’s Virtual Steinbeck Country United Global Festival this August. This virtual event centers on the 75th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Novel Cannery Row. Itwill feature literary panels, as well as musical acts performing live online. Local singer/songwriter Matt Costa is headlining the event. He’s written songs based on Steinbeck’s books, includingSweet Thursday.


In Santa Cruz, the MAH has opened its latest exhibit "Queer Santa Cruz" in an online format. It explores the queer history of Santa Cruz, from the city’s first pride event in the 1970s to the present day. Exhibition Manager Whitney Ford-Terry says that after looking at the data the museum captured for the exhibit, it is clear that it has been really successful and has been shared widely, both in Santa Cruz County and around the world. An unexpected silver lining in an otherwise difficult time.


The MAH is expecting to reopen later this summer. The National Steinbeck Center is working on their reopening plans. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, which did open in late June, is now closed under new state restrictions for Monterey County. The museum will continue its “Museum to You” program.


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