How cultural institutions have adapted to the pandemic one year later



Museum visitors in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

By Lucia Thorne, Living Arts Editor

While the pandemic rages on after more than a year has passed since it began, Americans’ go-to outlets for entertainment look quite different from how they did a year ago. 

Making whipped coffee and watching Tiger King is no longer the sole source of entertainment like it was during the early days of quarantine in spring 2020. The vaccination process is currently underway and cultural institutions in Boston have begun to reopen, giving Emersonians and Bostonians alike the chance to get out and enjoy the culture of the city. 

However, the transition from quarantine to public engagement brought many challenges for some museums and other kinds of cultural institutions, like the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Fine Arts. 

New England Aquarium Director of Communications and Public Relations, Pam Bechtold Snyder, spoke with The Beacon about how their institution adapted to the many changes brought on by COVID-19.

In regards to basic COVID-19 safety, Snyder said the aquarium enforces constant (and proper) mask wearing, staggered staff schedules that phase out according to COVID case patterns, one-way walking paths for guests to follow, increased cleaning maintenance for crowded areas, and timed ticketing that ensures the attendance stays below 20 percent capacity. 

“We feel that that’s the safest experience possible for our visitors,” Snyder said. “As more people get vaccinated and the state guidelines change, we will continue to evaluate this capacity restriction.”

At the time of the interview, Snyder said that there have been no known cases of COVID spreading among staff or visitors as a result of being in the aquarium. 

To make up for lost funds, Snyder said the aquarium launched their “Mission Forward Funds.” The fundraising campaign was incredibly helpful and successful, she said, however it could not fully make up for their financial losses. 

“Thanks to the generosity of so many supporters that funds brought in $11.5 million last year, but even with all of that, generated an operating loss of $5 million last year,” Snyder said.

Although the decrease in ticket sales has hit the aquarium hard, seeing as ticket sales and special events make up about 80 percent of their revenue, Snyder said the use of online programming was able to keep potential visitors and regulars occupied until their first reopening July of 2020. The aquarium closed again from December 2020 to early February.

“When it became clear that we were gonna have to be closed for an extended period of time, we created virtual animal encounters, close sessions with animals and trainers,” Snyder said. “People do them for corporate events or for birthday parties, and even school groups.”

In addition to the virtual animal encounters, Snyder said the aquarium also launched a virtual academy in Nov. 2020 to educate children on marine life and science from kindergarten to fifth grade. 

“We also saw a need for school-aged standards-aligned stem programming that would replace field trips and they include a video and activity for students with a virtual interaction with our aquarium staff on zoom,” Snyder said. 

Snyder said the aquarium is counting on public support to continue recovering from the financial losses of the pandemic. 

“We really hope that people of all ages, once they feel comfortable and they feel safe, come through our doors to visit the penguins, to see the seals and Myrtle the turtle,” Snyder said. “The aquarium is a beloved, iconic institution, and we just hope that we can be part of a really positive summer for the city of Boston as people venture out more.”

Museum of Fine Arts director of special projects and COVID-19 officer, Maggie Scott, described similar challenges they faced at the MFA. 

“[We face] the same challenges that every institution faces, which is, ‘How do you bring people back to a place that is rooted in sort of a togetherness?’” Scott said. “For museums, the entire purpose and way of being is a sort of shared experience, so ‘how do you make a shared experience something still valuable when you can’t really do it in the same way you used to?’” 

To maintain close watch of the priceless artworks in the museum during the lockdown, the MFA staggered staff scheduling for security, ensuring that each pod would not interact with another, limiting potential community spread. 

The COVID-19 safety measures the MFA currently uses are strict mask wearing policies, limited capacity, limited staff onsite (less than 50 percent), hand sanitizer stations placed strategically throughout the galleries, self-cleaning door handle coverings, and contact tracing. 

Scott said that some MFA employees tested positive over the course of the pandemic, but none were attributed to community spread. They have received only one contact tracing call from the state. 

The MFA closed from March 2020 to Sept. 2020, and closed again from December to early February. Since city and state guidelines aren’t necessarily the same, Scott said staying in accordance with local health restrictions has also been challenging. 

“While we are really great at following all of the administration’s guidelines, knowing the intersecting guidelines between city and state and making sure that you’re on track with all those things can be difficult,” Scott said. “But we’ve also found these really great ways to sort of work in new ways.” 

Scott said this task brought on better communication and collaboration between departments.

Scott also discussed the issues the museum has had to overcome in regards to the programming for the year. She said it was much easier for the MFA to transition to an online format since most of the artworks in the museum had already been documented virtually. 

The MFA moved their cultural celebrations online and launched a new program called Soundbites, which are virtual concerts that take place in the museum’s galleries. 

The MFA’s special exhibits are selling out quickly, with their Monet exhibit being sold out indefinitely, and their Basquiat exhibition selling out on the weekends. But ensuring the museum’s planning for these exhibitions was quite challenging during the past year, Scott said.

“What so few people realize with museums is how much international integration is required to put on these exhibitions,” Scott said. “The difficult part has been making sure that anything we commit to, we will be able to achieve without knowing if you know another country is going to be able to ship anything. You can’t really rely on those pieces of artwork getting to you. So now that thing seems to have stabilized, we’re actually able to do a whole lot more planning, and we’re able to do it really fast.”

With all this programming, online and in-person, museum membership has remained rather steady, which Scott said helped the museum maintain some revenue. 

“Many people kept their memberships during the time period and didn’t ask for extensions, which is incredibly generous,” Scott said. “We have a lot of really wonderful donors, including those on our board who have considerably helped over the course of the pandemic.” 

The generosity of visitors and donors is what has allowed beloved institutions like both the MFA and the aquarium to stay afloat. 

“This has been a very challenging time for the Aquarium as it has been for so many other cultural institutions,” Snyder said. “As things start to open back up and return to normal, we’re really counting on support from the public to make it to the other side of the pandemic through donations and through our ticket sales.”

Snyder and Scott both encourage people to visit safely, as it can be a nice escape from the current reality while everyone waits patiently for their turns to be vaccinated.

“We’ve proven after all these months of being reopened that we can do it safely and that it’s one of those few locations that lends itself to a safe experience,” Scott said. “And for the people who really need a sort of community and a moment outside of their house and might not otherwise really encourage them to come and visit, because it can be really healing, it can be a really wonderful day for someone.”