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.
CARBONDALE — As Southern Illinois University prepares to welcome thousands of students to campus in August amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the University Museum has had to put exhibitions and in-person programming on hold as they pivot their plans for the fall semester.
The museum, a modular 10,000-square-foot space spread out between two halls tucked away on the north side of SIU’s Faner Hall, is no stranger to adversity. It closed in 2017 due to the state budget impasse, but reopened months later. The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic are just another hurdle to jump in continuing the museum’s legacy of showcasing art, science and the humanities for almost 150 years.
John Pollitz, SIU’s dean for library affairs, who oversees the museum, said they are just “rolling with the punches” as the novel coronavirus has spread throughout the country. The museum had to cancel exhibitions and receptions during the spring semester, including one honoring a collection of John James Audubon prints, which were recently donated by an alumnus.
Audubon is known for studying birds and natural history while being an avid painter. His combined interest sparked his goal of making a complete pictorial record of all the bird species in North America. The collection includes hundreds of prints drawn and printed in the early 1800s, valued at over $550,000.
Pollitz said they had rescheduled the exhibition for the fall semester, but had to push it back due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s too shaky to have it in the fall,” he said. “We’re having to push it back a whole year to recognize this wonderful donation.”
The museum isn’t planning on doing “anything big” in the fall semester, which has been “a disappointment” for Pollitz, especially postponing the opening of the “Rock and Rolled” exhibit — a “celebration of music that has defined the culture combined with timeless geological specimens embodying the structure of the earth.” The exhibit features painting, photography, sculpture, installation and illustrations paired with rocks, minerals, fossils and meteorites from the Geology Collection at the Illinois State Museum.
The pandemic also came as a challenge to Wes Stoerger, curator of exhibits at SIU's University Museum. “We were geared up to have a full year’s worth of exhibitions and then the pandemic hit and ground everything to a halt,” he said. “Our hands were basically tied with it and there wasn’t much we could do.”
A study conducted by Arts Alliance Illinois, a nonprofit organization looking at the impact of COVID-19 on museums, found roughly 780 public-facing events have been canceled throughout the state in response to the virus. The survey found there are over 6,000 events, programs, exhibitions and performances expected to be canceled due to the pandemic.
Museums were allowed to reopen with some restrictions during Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan to reopen public places after virus-related shutdowns, but museums attached to institutions of higher learning have been tasked with following their schools’ guidelines.
The University Museum at SIU will have its gallery spaces reopened to the public in mid-August, but there will be some guidelines encouraging the use of face coverings, limits on gatherings, and social distancing.
Stoerger said he understands people “may feel apprehensive or anxious” visiting gallery spaces with the large number of people coming to the university in the fall semester, and the museum’s staff is moving toward changing its strategy on how the museum promotes and displays its content. The virus has made the organization “lean on (its) social media presence and website” to help make the content available for a wider variety of people.
“We need to make sure we’re looking at social media and our website and having photos or videos of our galleries so (community members) can still have that experience they’re looking for,” he said. “And so they can see what their community is doing and what the arts still can bring to the table.”
The museum partnered with campus affiliates to create a video for “Conversation 2.0,” a recent exhibition highlighting pieces acquired and created by Reginald Petty and Edna Patterson-Petty. The pieces are from Reginald’s time in Africa with the Peace Corps, as well as original artwork created by Edna.
Stoerger said the video offers a way to include the artists' voices in a digital presentation of the exhibition. “It works with the fact that we can’t really have receptions so we’re trying to figure out a way to produce some sort of content that allows the artist to have a voice on why they make their art and what motivates them instead of just having the galleries open,” he said. The video will be posted with other digital content soon. Updates will be posted at facebook.com/UniversityMuseum.
Other university-affiliated museums in Illinois have taken similar approaches to moving toward digital spaces amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including the University Galleries at Illinois State University and the University of Illinois’ Krannert Art Museum.
The Galleries at Illinois State University, an exhibition space for contemporary art in Normal, suspended all in-person events through the end of July in accordance with university guidance. The organization moved multiple events to digital platforms, including its annual student showcase, guided art workshops, and its Teen Art Group’s curated exhibit of Iranian artist Nazafarin Lotfi's work.
“We had never done an exhibition exclusively online — they were always tied to something we were doing physically, as well,” said Kendra Paitz, director and chief curator at the University Galleries at Illinois State University.
The exhibition was the culmination of several months of work for 15 Bloomington High School students who have participated in the Teen Art Group program over two years. While the last meeting of the program was scheduled to be the installment of the physical work in the gallery space with the artist, the global pandemic forced the group pivot the exhibition to a digital format.
“These students were so incredible, they could've been so frustrated and just so disappointed about not being able to install their exhibition with the artist and they just were so flexible and so resilient and enthusiastic,” Paitz said. “(They) just rolled with it and made a lot of magic happen.
The Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in Champaign also shut its doors due to the pandemic, but continued engaging with its patrons through online platforms. Smile Politely, an online magazine covering Champaign-Urbana, reports the museum continues its Arts Remastered at Home, a video series featuring at-home performances of original music inspired by works at the museum. They also hosted a “Quarantine Virtual Youth Arts Exhibit” and even made art from their collection available for Zoom backgrounds.
Stoerger is planning to bring in a virtual component to the SIU University Museum’s fall exhibition — a photographic chronicle of recent protests across Southern Illinois in response to the death of George Floyd titled “United We Stand.” He said the activism and calls for equality throughout the region are “not something that just has started” and they have “been going on for years.” The exhibit is slated to open in mid-August and will be up throughout the fall semester.
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Throughout the pandemic, Pollitz said the museum staff has worked on plans for how to safely reopen, and will continue assessing the situation throughout the semester. He added the university provides an experience for both students and the community at large.
“(The museum) is another thing that shows how SIU is a great resource for this region that is sometimes forgotten by those north of I-80, or even I-70,” Pollitz said. “We’re working behind the scenes and when we come back, we’re going to be better than ever.”
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