Behind Closed Doors
From preservation to education to online curation, Knoxville’s museums continue their missions even while sealed off from the world.
by jesse fox mayshark • april 30, 2020
the mcclung museum of natural history and culture on the university of tennessee campus.
On Feb. 27, 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Chile, triggering a tsunami along parts of the Chilean coast, causing more than 500 deaths and damage throughout the country.
With physical spaces closed, collections and activities are moving online.
Among the many institutions affected by the widespread destruction was the country’s National Museum of Natural History in Santiago, Chile’s capital.
“We had to close the museum, and we left it closed for 26 months,” said Claudio Gómez, who was at the time the museum’s director.
Gómez is now executive director of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. His experience during that prolonged shutdown in Chile is helping guide his decisions as he once again finds himself at the head of a public institution that has been cut off from the public.
“I think many museums not just in the U.S. but around the world will be closed for many months,” Gómez said, as states and countries grapple with containment of the novel coronavirus.
But conversations with local museum directors and staff make clear that while the doors may be closed, their curatorial, educational and preservation work continues.
“About 60 to 70 percent of what we do is collect and preserve, and that will continue,” said David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art. “We’ll continue to take care of the collection, we’ll be documenting it, we’ll have more and more of it available on the internet.”
Christine Anagnos, executive director of the national Association of Art Museum Directors, said she hears similar determination from directors across the country.
“I don’t think there’s any institution I know of that is thinking, ‘Eh, we don’t need to do anything right now,’” Anagnos said. “If anything, they are so committed to doing more.”
Renovation and Innovation
Gómez said that during the prolonged closure in Chile, his museum was able to accelerate major renovations that were easier to do without having to accommodate visitors at the same time. There is nothing as grand planned for McClung, but he said he and his staff have been talking through some small-budget improvements that they can make during the down time.
“We’re sorting out those ideas and initiatives so that we can implement some of them,” Gómez said.
At KMA, some renovations that had begun before the pandemic are continuing, including building a new community and event space where the museum’s auditorium formerly was.
Butler said the forced closure has also given staff both the time and added incentive to create more online offerings — a longtime goal that has often had to take a backseat to the immediate demands of the museum’s physical galleries.
“We’re thinking that when this is all over, we’ll have a much more robust online presence than we’ve had,” he said. “It will greatly expand our footprint. We’re not there yet, we’re really scrambling to get content ready and have it available digitally.”
Similar efforts are underway at McClung. “The museum had been working before I got here on that realm,” said Gómez, who came to UT last fall. “My team and I have been exploring what are the things we can do.”
At the Museum of East Tennessee History on Gay Street, the March pandemic closure came in the middle of one of its busiest times of year, when it typically hosts school groups from around the region. (The museum shares space with the Knox County Public Library in a building owned by the county, which has been closed since the libraries closed last month.)
Lisa Oakley, curator of education for the East Tennessee Historical Society, which operates the museum, said the staff had to think quickly about how to continue to provide resources to both students and teachers who were suddenly stranded at home.
“We just had to find something different to do, since we didn’t have the collections accessible to us,” Oakley said. “We have digital collections, so we've worked with our curator of collections, and she's made our digital collections available.”
Drawing on those resources, Oakley’s education and volunteer coordinator Hannah Rexrode created a new Facebook page, ETHS Education, and started posting daily history lessons, activities and links. They have included journaling exercises, bingo games, and — for Suffrage Week — a “Make Your Own Suffrage Sign” project.
“We’ve been trying to supply the teachers and parents and students with whatever we can to help,” Rexrode said. “We’re hoping to keep it going even after things open back up as well.”
A Cautious Return
Prolonged shutdowns pose different levels of financial threat to different institutions, depending on their funding models. Anagnos said that nationwide, the art museums she works with face a range of challenges.
“Every institution will be touched by this and will be affected by this,” she said. “Our hope is that it doesn’t do irreparable damage to the art and cultural field.”
Butler said KMA entered the pandemic in good financial health, and since the museum doesn’t charge admission it isn’t losing any revenue from visitors. Its primary losses while closed are from event rental fees.
KMA’s members and major donors stood by the museum through the recession that started in 2008, Butler said, and he’s confident they will again.
“We’ve got people that will hang in there with us and support us even if we don’t reopen for a while,” he said.
The McClung and East Tennessee History museums both have the benefit of institutional support, from UT and the Historical Society, respectively.
“We have that confidence in being part of a large organization,” Gómez said. “We will be able to reopen, we will be able to survive the crisis.”
When and how to reopen is something museums everywhere are struggling with, Anagnos said. She said they are conscious of their roles as community leaders.
“Museums are really trusted institutions,” she said. “And everything they do is going to be focused on data and science, on how best to welcome the public back.”
With UT keeping students off campus at least through summer, Gómez said he doesn’t expect the McClung Museum to open any time soon.
“In the meantime, you need to stay relevant in the way that we can be of service to the community,” he said, through online offerings and support of the university’s scholarly missions.
At KMA, Butler said he and his staff are thinking through what reopening might look like, from social distance and capacity rules to masks and plexiglass. He said the top priority will be safety for both visitors and staff.
“I’m haunted by the idea that we’re a place where people from all over the world come,” Butler said. “That used to be a great thing, and now it seems like kind of a scary thing.”
Under the guidelines issued this week by the Knox County Health Department, museums can reopen gallery spaces for passive viewing at half capacity starting this Friday, although any children’s or interactive areas must remain closed for at least 28 days.
“The specifics are just starting to come into focus, but it's clear that the experience of visiting the museum will be very different in this new reality, with lots of restrictive protocols to ensure safety for everyone,” Butler said Wednesday. “We hope in the next few weeks to announce a timeline for reopening, and we appreciate everyone's patience.”
When museums do reopen, Oakley said, it will be with the benefit of experience and innovation during the shutdown, which can carry over to the post-pandemic world.
“What all of us are creating right now is very time intensive, we’re very busy,” she said. “So at some point we need to assess what types of efforts have had the most response.”
Oakley added, “We're committed though, to figuring out something, it won't go away. I think a lot of museums will have that challenge. We opened this new world to our audience, as well as to us.”