Small Museums Report Large Losses From Pandemic Closures

It’s spring and the gardens are beginning to burst with towering rhododendrons at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich.

While the museum will be allowed to reopen its outdoor gardens and trails to the public this Saturday, May 30,  it won’t look like past opening days. Admission is by online advance tickets; the gift shop won’t be open. Children won’t be allowed to ride on the carousel or adults wander through an exhibit of antique automobiles.

As America begins to emerge from restrictions that closed non-essential businesses and museums, small museums in particular have reported huge losses in revenue due to the pandemic that begin in March. As their busiest season approaches, most are trying to find ways to engage the public until they can fully open their doors.

According to a survey conducted by the New England Museums Association, more than 100 New England museums reported a sum of over $21 million, or an average of $190,000 lost per institution,  revenue lost from attendance, memberships, programs, events, food and gift shop sales and site rentals.

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A visitor snaps a photograph of a towering rhododendron at Heritage Museums & Gardens, which is opening its gardens this weekend. COURTESY OF HERITAGE MUSEUMS & GARDENS


The association conducted a nationwide survey of museum institutions from April 21 to May 1, 2020, to quantify the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and closures on financial and educational outcomes. Of the 310 surveys completed nationally, 150 were from institutions located within New England. Smaller budget organizations and history organizations were the majority of respondents.

Seasonal museums are experiencing delayed openings and dropped programs and attendance, while others are recognizing that reopening safely to staff and public could take months, prolonging the impact.

Spring is also traditionally the busiest time for school field trips to museums: 128 New England museums reported that they had been unable to welcome over 280,000 pre-K to Grade 12 students since the closings, and lost the opportunity to bring outreach programs to another 62,200. This does not include a further 12,500 college and graduate students, who would have visited New England museums for classes, internships, projects, and fellowships this spring.

Meanwhile, many are formulating reopening plans and have found other ways to reach the public via virtual exhibits or outdoor events, albeit in a different landscape where face masks will be required and social distancing will limit the number of visitors at one time in indoor exhibit spaces.

“The Cahoon Museum has lost significant revenue during this time of closure from missed admissions, program ticket sales, memberships, museum store sales, and planned fundraising events,” agreed Sarah Johnson, director of The Cahoon Museum of Art in Cotuit. “The spring season is normally a busy time for group tours at the museum, including school group visits, so we have temporarily lost that source of income as well.”

Like many small cultural institutions, Cahoon, an art museum named for Cape Cod folk artist Ralph Cahoon, has had to think how to deliver the arts to the public during the time when indoor museums and retail shops are closed for the time being.

“We installed a colorful new public art exhibition, ‘Alfred Glover: Garden Grove,’ as a way to lift the spirits of the community and provide inspiration,” said Johnson. “That will be on view throughout the year. We have also added new educational content, videos, and online exhibitions to our website. We will be continuing to focus on online and virtual offerings, such as online classes, downloadable art activity sheets, virtual talks and tours, and more. Cahoon continues to share stories and images of artwork in our collection on Instagram and Facebook.”

Alfie Glover
The museum galleries won’t be open for awhile, but visitors can tour the outdoor exhibit of Alfie Glover’s sculpture at Cahoon Museum of American Art. COURTESY OF CAHOON MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Cahoon museum staff is preparing for a reopening at some point between  July 1 and Sept. 8, depending on how the first phases of the state’s reopening go, Johnson said. When that does occur, the number of visitors admitted into the museum will be limited  to allow for social distancing and ticketless entry (via online) will be implemented. Hand sanitizing stations have been installed throughout its galleries and masks will be required for all staff, volunteers and visitors. Interactive art projects have been eliminated.

“Most of all, we want to ensure that the museum is a safe space to visit and that we can continue to offer the joy of art,” said Johnson. “Keep an eye out for local plein air painters on the museum grounds that people can watch create art from a safe distance. We have been happy to see people visiting our outdoor art, including the Blue Trees, cod sculpture, and Alfie’s Garden Grove and using the grounds as a respite during the last two months. We hope that the community will continue to enjoy our public art while practicing social distancing and following state guidelines.”

Heritage Museums & Gardens diversity of indoor and outdoor attractions has proved to be a positive asset as Massachusetts’ slowly opens its economy. Spring through fall, thousands flock to the Sandwich destination, many drawn to view the spectacular rhododendron display in late spring. Throughout its season, visitors attend concerts, ride the vintage carousel, explore the extensive gardens on 100 acres, and view a range of exhibits, such as the collection of antique automobiles. Visitors will not be allowed in The Shop at Heritage (although  online sales are and curbside pickup are allowed), The J.K. Lilly III Automobile Gallery, The Special Exhibitions Gallery, Hidden Hollow and the American Art & Carousel Gallery, but there are nature trails and many other outdoor areas to explore. Admission for now will be by tickets purchased online for a specific date.

“At Heritage, we are fortunate to have a great diversity of offerings for the public. We are excited to welcome back visitors who can experience the outdoors and our beautiful gardens,” said Anne Scott- Putney, president and CEO, Heritage Museums & Gardens. “We also have just launched our Virtual Rhododendron Festival and Virtual Run for the Rhodies 5K race so people can participate and enjoy this seasonal festival from home.  Our staff training is focused on health and safety issues and we are strictly following all state and CDC guidance to provide a safeguarded experience at Heritage for our visitors and staff.”

Other data from the New England Museums’ report:

  • 85 percent of respondents are considering plans for adjusted operation on reopening;
  • 62 percent say they are also planning for a succession of closures and reopenings should there be further outbreaks;
  • 22 percent report that they are having to plan for a scenario in which they are unable to reopen at all. Most report an intention to increase outdoor programming, or to open their campuses in advance of their buildings;
  • 88 percent of reporting museums have seen an increase in their followers and interactions on social media, and 57 percent have seen an uptick in website traffic;
  • 24 percent have put new or increased educational resources for students, parents, or teachers on their websites, and 25 percent have also added more of their collections online;
  • 83 percent are adjusting to safety concerns via signage requesting social distancing behavior; 79 percent. are providing gloves, masks, and other protective equipment for front-line staff;
  • 74 percent expect lower attendance limits in galleries and programs.


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