This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. For more stories about the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project at PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.
For the past 25 years, the McLean County Museum of History has been bringing history to life through the Evergreen Cemetery Walk. Each October, costumed actors resurrect individuals from the county’s history and lead tours through the cemetery grounds.
This year, things are going to be a little different.
As concerns about COVID-19 began to swell in late March, Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order shuttering all nonessential businesses throughout the state. Like so many other institutions, museums were forced to close their doors.
The original order was set to expire in early April, but was soon extended though May, then most of June. In the face of prolonged shutdowns, museums began to search for alternative ways to stay connected with the public, like digitizing archives and moving exhibitions online.
Plans for the 2020 Cemetery Walk were already underway, but with no guarantees that restrictions would be fully lifted by the fall, the museum faced a difficult decision.
The walk typically draws between 150-200 people per performance. On weekends, the numbers are even higher.
Could an event like that survive in the age of social distancing?
“I have a three page list of all the pros and cons to doing it in person,” said Candace Summers, the museum’s director of education.
Ultimately, the cons won out. And amid concerns over the sheer unpredictability of the virus, the museum made an historic decision.
For the first time, the Evergreen Cemetery Walk will be a virtual event that the museum will make available through online platforms. Rather than guiding physical tours through the tombstones, the ghosts will be in the machine.
“We just feel that this is the safest, most responsible way that we can continue to uphold the mission of the museum in educating the public about our local history and providing high quality programming, while keeping in mind public health and keeping people safe,” said Summers.
This decision to play it safe is an example of the kind of contingency planning happening in museums across the state. Under the Restore Illinois plan, museums are able to open in Phase 4, which is set to begin Friday.
Under Phase 4 guidelines, museums can reopen with 25 percent capacity. Interactive exhibits are still closed and guided tours must be held to 50 people or less. Large gatherings, like the cemetery walk, aren’t allowed until Phase 5.
“But there are no guarantees we’d be in Phase 5 by the time the walk happens,” said Summers. “What if there’s a second wave? What if the kids aren’t in school?”
Summers said it’s these kind of uncertainties that have led to so many events being canceled through the summer and fall. Museums devote months, even years, to fundraising and planning for events and exhibitions. If a scheduled event has to be scrapped at the last moment because the state failed to progress to the next phase of reopening, the results could be devastating – both to the museum and the community it serves.
Summers acknowledged the museum is plunging into unknown territory with a virtual walk. But because of its commitment to the local community, she says, the museum agreed that cancellation wasn’t on the table.
“So many of the people we serve through this event are school kids,” said Summers.
“And because there are so many unknowns about what school with look like, having the walk on a virtual platform ensures that school kids in this area – and further away, now that it’s virtual – can continue to access and experience this award winning programming no matter where they are," she said.
Summers said the museum is also committed to supporting the local theater community, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Because of the shutdowns, all live performances have been cancelled since March. Hopes that things would normalize by summer have largely been dashed, with events like the Illinois Shakespeare Festival being postponed until 2021.
Summers said the museum’s longtime relationship with the Illinois Voices Theater was another reason to forge ahead with plans for the walk.
“We are one of the few cemetery walks that’s a paid gig,” she said.
“We made a commitment to support our local theater and pay for the talent that we have in this community. Because we do have so much talent.”
These commitments underscore the role a museum plays in the cultural ecosystem of a community. A lack of access to a museum’s programming and materials causes ripple effects through education, the arts, and overall civic wellbeing.
Greg Koos, who serves as emeritus executive director, said the museum realized early on in the crisis that in order to stay connected with the community, it would have to expand its digital outreach.
He said the museum was able to take advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program and has been able to retain all of its staff. This has allowed work to continue on the ongoing project of digitizing museum archives as well as developing the virtual cemetery walk.
The museum also has plans to convert future lecture series into webinars and to transition the History Reads book club to an online format – all in an effort to maintain connection and nourish a cultural symbiosis.
“The museum has a long term relationship with the community and the community has a long term relationship with us,” said Koos.
“We are one of the entities that say there is a place called Bloomington-Normal, there is a place called McLean County. We’re a touchstone for community identity.”
Koos said the museum has felt the impact of the shutdowns and does find itself financially challenged. But membership support, he said, has always been extremely important and is holding strong. Koos and Summers are optimistic that as restrictions ease and the economy stabilizes, the museum’s outlook will improve.
And if the crisis has an upside, it’s that the museum, like so many of us, has found new ways to adapt and innovate.
“In some ways, this can be a healthy thing,” said Koos. “We’re learning different ways of doing things.”
“It’s making us really think outside of our museum toolbox,” says Summers. “On both what we can do, and what we should do.”
While she’s having fun reimaging the Evergreen Cemetery Walk as a virtual event, Summers is still a little nostalgic for the past. She said the museum is already discussing plans the 2021 walk, which she hopes will be held in person.
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