ROCKFORD — Midway Village Museum has spent more than two decades under Executive Director David Byrnes practicing sound business practices, diversifying its income streams and making its exhibits more interactive.
Opened in 1974, Midway draws people to its main museum and gift shop who want to explore Rockford’s industrial and societal history. It holds special events on its 13-acre Victorian Village, which has 26 historic buildings and re-enactors giving you a glimpse of life in Rockford from 1890 to 1910. And it’s the site of dozens of corporate parties and weddings because of its unique look and amenities.
The public has responded. In 2019, 46,975 people came to Midway for one reason or another, making it Winnebago County’s second most visited museum.
“We’ve spent 20 years putting together a business model with lots of supports,” said Byrnes, who started working at Midway in 1999 and plans to retire at the end of the year. “Unfortunately, all of them assume the public is coming for rentals or tours or programs. The question now is, what can we change going forward?”
Midway, like 85,000 other museums worldwide, closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. It begins the reopening phase of its business on Friday when the Victorian Village opens to the public. The museum will open for paid tours on July 4.
“We’ve lost a full quarter of business. That’s cost Midway in excess of $100,000,” Byrnes said. “We’ve continued to pay full-time staff. We had some who announced they were leaving and we didn’t fill those positions. We did have to furlough our interpreters and maintenance staff. We’ve been bringing them back slowly as we neared reopening.”
Byrnes said the ramp up will be gradual.
Midway Village Museum attendance
2015 - 66,812
2016 - 72,124
2017 - 65,256
2018 - 61,956
2019 - 46,975
Source: Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
“We’ll only be doing tours of the village to start out, with nine per tour,” Byrnes said. “People will have to wear masks. We’ll check staff every day. We want to make sure the staffers are virus-free.”
The pandemic hits at a tough time for Midway because it is struggling, like many museums, to attract a new generation of kids who grew up with immersive video games and cell phones. They demand more to divert their attention. Midway drew a record 72,124 visitors in 2016 and has seen attendance decline every year since.
“The irony is we’ve been trying to make the museum more touch friendly,” Byrnes said. “Now, we have to go through a lot of those and either change them or close them until we can make them 100% safe.
“We’re looking at which ones we can do another way,” Byrnes said. “People may prefer to use a smartphone, scan something and enter a code to learn more. It’s forcing us to make changes more quickly than we’d planned. You need new equipment. You have to redo your scripts. You have to download images and electronic files.”
Byrnes has no illusions that things will bounce back quickly in his final year. He said he’s read studies that show it may take six months or more for people to feel comfortable coming to indoor attractions. Many experts fear a resurgence of the virus in the fall. Midway’s best money-making events are World War II days in September and All Hallows Eve in October.
“We’ve revised our budget and believe we can break even for the rest of the year,” Byrnes said. “But that’s assuming we can have large events by the fall. If we can’t, we’ll have to severely restrict our hours.”
Some of the business is lost forever. In April, LendingTree did a survey of engaged Americans. It found that 63% were postponing their weddings because of the virus, 22% planned to move forward with the original plans and 8% decided to do a courthouse marriage or elope.
“We’ve lost half a dozen weddings at least,” Byrnes said. “Fortunately, some are rescheduling for the fall. We’ve been trying to promote virtual receptions with the family here and the rest of the party coming in on Zoom. The other issue is Wisconsin is open for business.”
One thing is for certain — Byrnes’ final year will be unlike any other.
“Our first concern is convincing the public we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe,” he said. “The next concern is how to adapt the exhibits to the new normal. We don’t want to go back to having stuff in dusty old cabinets.”
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