This is the second of two stories exploring how the Peoria Riverfront Museum has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.
Normally staff at the Peoria Riverfront Museum would be gearing up to welcome bus-fulls of students when school resumes in a few weeks.
Instead, they’re holding meetings with superintendents, partners and funders to decide: if they can’t bring students to the museum, how can they bring the museum to students?
After closing in mid-March, the museum itself is now open at limited capacity under Phase 4 of Illinois’ reopening plan.
But between physical distancing and mask requirements, and schools reopening with optional in-person learning, there won’t be any field trips this fall.
Over the last three years, tens of thousands of students have taken free class trips to the museum as part of the Every Student Initiative.
Program Chair Sally Snyder said that means a lot of kids, particularly in Peoria Public Schools, won’t get to go to the museum at all.
She said the district’s majority low-income families face plenty of hurdles getting to the museum without adding a global pandemic to the mix.
“It’s getting the transportation to be able to come, finding the time off work, bringing little brothers and sisters, you know, I get it,” she said. “I’ve done too much work in the community, and particularly on the South Side, to know that it’s not easy.”
But Snyder said those are exactly the families she most wants to reach with the Every Student Initiative.
“They’re the most vulnerable,” she said. “Those who live where we live, our kids are gonna get it anyway, because we’re gonna see that they do. There’s a whole lot that aren’t gonna have those opportunities.”
Throughout the pandemic, many families have stayed connected to the museum through the Virtual Peoria Riverfront Museum, launched just before Governor J.B. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order went into effect.
It’s a translation of the physical museum into a collection of web-hosted videos, from gallery walk-throughs to curator discussions and science demonstrations.
But District 150 Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said the challenges faced by low-income families, like old or no technology at home, makes it difficult for them to reliably access digital content like the Virtual Museum.
She said the district was able to use CARES Act money to provide 6,000 laptop computers to students in March to help close the digital divide and help more students reach online educational resources.
The same ethos that drove the Virtual Museum project is now driving the museum’s search for a solution to the remote learning problem: as Museum President and CEO John Morris puts it, COVID-19 or not, kids still need inspiration.
“We want every student to feel like they’re part of this museum as much as anyone,” he said. “When that happens I think you see an engagement on the part of our young people that really sparks their learning, it builds their confidence and best of all it unleashes their talent.”
One idea is to use the same technology that makes the Virtual Museum possible to produce virtual tours.
“So if a school has a lesson about the solar system for fifth graders, our planetarium expert could do a live interactive program that is pumped right into the classroom of that school,” he said. They could even conduct a live Q-and-A, Morris said, or bring an object from the museum -- say, a meteorite -- into the classroom to complement the program.
Museum staff may also deliver activity kits, or make in-school presentations. Morris said they’ll finalize a plan for the Every Student Initiative by mid-August.
For those students who won’t be spending the semester in a school building, or have a tough time getting online at home, connecting with the museum may be as simple as turning on the TV.
Back in May, public television station WTVP announced plans to launch a fifth channel dedicated exclusively to remote learning.
WTVP President and CEO Lesley Matuszak said WTVP REMOTE was created to bring educational content to children living in rural, inner-city and under-priveleged areas without access to broadband.
“People assume every student has a computer, that every student has Internet, and that everybody has cable; that is not the case,” she said.
But, she said, most households do have a television. And starting September 1st, K-12 students will be able to turn it on to watch content on a variety of subjects like math, science, reading, language arts and social studies.
That includes content produced inside the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
“So we would like to go in and record, put on John, the curators, other folks with expertise, so that students and anybody that’s interested in having this virtual tour can come in and experience it as if they were standing right there in the museum,” she said.
Whether they’re standing in the building or watching on a screen, visitors can expect to see the museum’s content begin to shift over the next few months.
The Restore Illinois plan included museums in Phase 4 of reopening, but issued guidance that museums close or modify all hands-on exhibits.
“The term ‘hands-on’ is probably over for a good amount of time,” said Bill Conger, the museum’s head curator. “And it’s a frustrating thing for museums who particularly have had a big stake in working with youth and kids with direct tactile interaction.”
The Peoria Riverfront Museum is one of those institutions. The IHSA Peak Performance gallery, the museum’s most popular and engaging exhibit, remains closed. So does Discovery World, the museum’s kid-centric activity center.
Those hands-on, teambuilding-focused exhibits served an important function for the museum’s younger guests, said Kate Schureman, the museum’s COO & VP of Administration.
“When we did studies for this facility, when we asked people of the Boomer generation and our generation -- I’m an X-er -- ‘What does interactive mean,’ the answer was screens, you know, push screens and buttons,” she said.
But for Millennials and Generation Z, Schureman said, “they spend so much of their lives on screens that interactive means an opportunity to be with others, play with Legos, or fingerpaint, because they don’t get to do that at home. Either they’re so structured with after school activities, or mom and dad don’t want to have the house messed up, that they were looking at museums as places to do the stuff that we maybe did as kids.”
Schureman said many American museums followed the same cues from their guests, building large hands-on exhibits to encourage families to come in and play.
Thus museums all over the country are tasked with answering the same question: how can you be engaging without touch?
Conger said physical touch isn’t the only way to interpret “interactivity.”
“As we move forward in reimagining that, we have determined that it will be family based, number one, encouraging interactivity between parents and children or children and grandparents, mentors, whoever happens to be with them,” he said.
That could mean building galleries that foster conversations between kids and adults, or that allow for movement-based activities similar to technology pioneered by Wii.
COVID-19 won’t change the fundamental nature of museums, Conger said.
“Museums are about objects, and objects help tell stories,” he said. “Without the objects, we’re really kind of out of fuel.”
But there can be no more business as usual, Conger said.
“If we think the old model is the only model, we’re mistaken,” he said. “Things will kind of level off again, but I think that’s actually a long way off, and museums I believe will be better off by taking these lessons now and moving forward.”
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