For more stories about the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project at PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.
ROCKFORD — For nearly four months, Sarah Wolf experienced something very rare at Discovery Center Museum — quiet.
“My office shares a wall with Tot Spot,” said Wolf, who became Discovery’s first and, still, only executive director when it opened in 1985. “It’s like living near an airport. You stop hearing the airplanes. I was used to hearing the kids all day and then there was silence ... and that was disconcerting.”
Since opening in 1985, Discovery has been the Rock River Valley’s most popular museum. Discovery drew a record 195,302 visitors in 2016. Last year, it drew 174,017 parents and children looking to learn about science at about 250 hands-on exhibits. To put that in perspective, Discovery Center draws more annually than the combined total of the rest of the museums in Winnebago County.
On March 15, Discovery Center, like 85,000 museums around the world, closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. At first, Discovery Center announced it would close for two weeks. The shutdown lasted until July 8.
Wolf said staff spent the first month doing projects that had been on the wish list for years. Then they began preparing a plan to reopen under the strict Health Department guidelines. Children’s museums are in much the same conundrum that schools are facing. Statistically, children seem to be far less likely to suffer the worst illnesses from COVID-19. But the risk isn’t zero. And children, especially small children, are far more likely to pass the virus because they like to touch things.
The reopening plan is impressive and exhaustive.
First of all, the hands-on exhibits are closed for the foreseeable future. The Discovery Center is allowing groups to come in in three waves: 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and then 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
To visit, you have to make an advance reservation and once the session hits 50 visitors, it is closed. Upon arrival, you are met by a Discovery Center staffer who does a series of COVID-19 required checks. Then the staffer escorts the group through the museum, making sure that each exhibit is clear of another group.
Each time a visitor touches something, it is set aside to be cleaned for the next session. Discovery Center bought triplicate of everything that kids could touch. After a group moves through an area, a staffer swoops in to clean it for the next group.
“We’ve actually had some families say they like the new rules,” Wolf said. “It can get pretty crowded in here and sometimes you’ll come and not enjoy an exhibit because there are too many kids on it.”
That’s the upside. The downside is that Discovery Center is losing money — significant amounts of money — every day that it’s open.
“In the summer, we get 700 to 1,000 visitors a day,” Wolf said. “Our maximum now is 150 and the majority of them are members. Long-term, that’s unsustainable.”
Wolf takes part in weekly calls with children’s museum directors across the country. She said many are choosing not to reopen until 2021 at the earliest because they can’t afford to run at a deficit.
“I’ve been fortunate to always have a very strong board (of directors) that insisted we don’t spend more than we make,” Wolf said. “So we’ve got years of reserves and we see Discovery Center as a necessary community resource. I really feel for these centers that have been open for just a few years. You can’t take these kind of losses.”
Wolf said there are so many unknowns that it’s hard to make future plans.
“None of us are sleeping as well as we did before this happened,” Wolf said. “There are so many layers of concern. When you see the spike (in cases and deaths) happening in other states that reopened early you worry that perhaps we’ll see that here. I feel for the people in California having to close again. We don’t want to go backward.”
Wolf said she thinks about “reimagining” Discovery Center. Some children’s museums are converting, at least for the time being, into rental facilities, open only when a group or family wants to use the center for a celebration.
That’s not Wolf’s long-term vision for Discovery. Her vision is to do what she can to allow as many people as possible to enjoy Discovery until a vaccine is developed and distributed, allowing the world to resume somewhat to normal.
“I don’t read novels at night anymore,” Wolf said. “I read about vaccines and treatments. There are a number of vaccines in development that look promising. I’m an optimist by nature and I believe science will get us through this.”
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