How the coronavirus is changing Jewish museums

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From left: Stuart Zuckerman, Heather Moran, Gil Preuss, Rachel Gildener, Yolanda Savage-Narva, Kara Blond (Photos by Chris Kleponis / Polaris)

Kara Blond watched from the sidelines as Jewish museums across the country, one by one, closed their doors to the coronavirus pandemic. The Lillian & Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum in Washington, where Blond serves as executive director, is closed for construction. In the meantime, Blond is considering how the changes wrought by the virus have museums — and Jewish museums in particular— rethinking their functions and programming.

“What does it mean to walk into a public space in a post-COVID world?” asked Blond, who came to the museum in 2017. “Will people be willing to interact with exhibits as they used to? And what role will Jewish museums play in such a turbulent time?


“I feel fortunate that we are able to learn from all of the other cultural organizations and museums in our city and nationally that will be going through that first,” Blond said. “And when we get ready to open our doors, we’ll have a lot of lessons learned that we can build off of.”

Jewish museums across the country have had to grapple with the economic fallout from the pandemic. Exhibitions were delayed. Programs moved online. And revenue streams adjusted in order for institutions to survive. Now museums are tackling questions like how to reopen, when to reopen, and more importantly, how to stay open.

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Jewish museums connect Jews to their roots and others to the Jewish experience, said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.

“The methodology by which we do it has changed. Some of those changes are temporary, and others are permanent.”


Money

Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, said the pandemic has forced Jewish museums to rethink their revenue models and find new ways of doing business. In the short term, she sees stability. It’s the long term that has her concerned.

“I think that 2020 overall has been more stable than I would have predicted,” Yaverbaum said. “That being said, there have been some painful layoffs. There have been some reductions of functions. And so I hope we will see a comeback. I’m more concerned about 2021.”

Yaverbaum said the rule of thumb for nonprofits, including museums, is to have a revenue model of 50 percent earned income, which includes ticket sales, membership fees and fundraisers. The other half is gifts, grants and, in rare cases, endowments.

That model “was thrown into chaos this year,” Yaverbaum said. “We’re all adjusting what our income model should be, and to look at the next years as relying less on earned income and in-person income.”

At The Jewish Museum in New York City, closing its doors to visitors for six months resulted in the museum adopting an operating budget that is almost 20 percent below the previous year, according to an email from Anne Scher, the museum’s senior director of strategic communications.

The Jewish Museum did receive a short-term Paycheck Protection Program loan that allowed it to keep all staff on for 12½ weeks after closing on March 13. But this was not enough to make up for lost revenue. So staff earning more than $100,000 had their salaries reduced, reducing matching contributions to the museum’s retirement plan and 17 positions were eventually eliminated through a combination of layoffs, reduced schedules and retirements. In June, all front of house staff were furloughed, but have since been brought back.

The Capital Jewish Museum’s closure may give it an advantage over other museums. Blond said construction has been largely on track and the museum is expected to open its doors in 2022.

“So I think we’re lucky in that sense,” Blond said.

Other museums can’t say the same thing. In May, the Jewish Exponent reported that The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia furloughed two-thirds of its staff. This was after reducing staff pay in March by 10 percent to 20 percent. The National Jewish Museum had looked into applying for a PPP loan to offset the revenue loss, but having declared bankruptcy on March 2 made it ineligible for the program.

Other Jewish museums have had to make fewer cuts in the wake of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the earned revenue of the Maryland Jewish Museum only accounted for 10 percent of its income. So the lack of ticket and gift shop sales haven’t hurt the museum too badly. Pinkert said they’ve had no furloughs or layoffs, thanks in part to the institution’s endowment fund and the PPP loan it secured.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Temple Judea Museum outside Philadelphia, Capital Jewish Museum and National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington also all reported no furloughs or layoffs since the onset of the pandemic. Even during the pandemic, Pinkert said Jewish museums play an important role in introducing non-Jews to Jewish culture and preserving Jewish history.

“[Jewish museums are] centered around the idea that we learn through experience, and that the Jewish experience is something that has value, not only to the community itself in terms of its identity and its pursuit of identity, but also to people outside the community in terms of understanding their neighbors,” Pinkert said. “And [Jewish museums] view ourselves as a counter lesson to what is being taught by the media and the others in our society who are comfortable spreading stereotypes and other injurious propaganda.”

Welcome to cyberspace

Jewish museums have expanded online programming since closing their doors to visitors in the wake of COVID. They’ve produced livestreamed lectures, virtual tours, online photo galleries and videos to continue to reach audiences during quarantine. Yaverbaum sees the shift online as a long-lasting one, even after the pandemic ends.

“Museums for decades have known the importance of digitizing collections, making them accessible online,” Yaverbaum said. “But now we’re looking at the online revolution as being much deeper in terms of illuminating all of our assets. And I think this is going to permanently change the work of museums, that even when our doors are open again, that the possibilities have been forced to the surface for us.”

The Capital Jewish Museum moved its volunteer program online by hosting virtual training to instruct volunteers on content development, material collection and writing biographies for subjects featured in future exhibits.

Rita Poley was in the middle of setting up an exhibit when the Temple Judea Museum closed its doors in March.

“I was worried every day,” said Poley, who is the museum’s director. “I was really worried that the synagogue was going to have to let me go and shut down. But that has not happened.”

Instead, the museum expanded its presence online. Poley created a YouTube channel for the museum, with some help from her granddaughters, and has produced videos about archived material and current exhibitions.

“And if you think that I ever thought I would have a YouTube channel, you are wrong,” Poley said.

The shift to virtual programming has allowed many Jewish museums to reach a wider audience geographically. Michael Rugel, programs and content coordinator for the Jewish Military Museum in Washington, said online events let people who can’t or won’t make the trip to the physical museum experience its artifacts. The museum had experimented with virtual programming before, but with limited success, Rugel said. That changed when people were stuck in quarantine. “There’s just been a shift in mindset, and people are now much more eager to get on to an online event.”

The Holocaust Memorial Museum also noted an increase of interest in its online programming. Last year, the museum’s 16 Facebook Live programs received 770,000 views, according to an email from Communications Director Andy Hollinger. So far this year, the museum’s 32 Facebook Live programs have been viewed more than 3.5 million times.

The museum was also able to expand the reach of its training program by going online. Over the summer, the Holocaust Memorial Museum held its annual Belfer Teacher Training program virtually. This allowed 1,000 educators from 49 states and 10 countries to receive training compared to 250 trained onsite in a typical year.

Other museums have noticed the extended reach of online programming. In August 2019, the Maryland Jewish Museum had 98 in-person visitors. In August 2020, 984 people attended the museum’s virtual programs.

“So it really demonstrated that there is a huge market that we had not considered prior to the pandemic,” Pinkert said. “And I suspect that this will be something that we will build on in the future.”

But there are things that virtual programming can’t replace. Looking at an object on a screen or a photo of an artifact is not the same as looking at the real thing, Pinkert said.

“We’ve had the ability to do things digitally for at least two decades or more. And yet, there is still a desire for the real thing.” Pinkert said. Take the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on display at the National Archives in Washington. Both draw crowds, despite being available for online viewing.

“It’s different to be two feet away from a document signed by Thomas Jefferson and look at it in his own hands, and to have that social experience of being there with the declaration, than it is to simply see an image online, no matter how clear that image is. So you can count me in the camp that still feels museums still have a life.”

IRL

Several museums attempted over the summer to reopen. Social distancing signs went up. Hand sanitizer appeared. And exhibits were rearranged for a lower density of visitors. The continued hesitation to gather indoors, despite the changes, is clear in attendance numbers.

The Maryland Jewish Museum reopened to visitors in July, selling tickets for designated time slots with a capacity of 60 reservations per week. Pinkert said on average, the museum sees half that number, which has to do with school groups not visiting.

The Jewish Military Museum also reopened in July. No reservations are required, but a maximum of 15 people for each of the building’s two floors was set. Still, Rugel said, “we haven’t even come close to that many people showing up one at a time.”

Temple Judea reopened in September, but for scheduled visits only. The New York Jewish Museum reopened on Oct. 1, but with pre-order timed tickets and is limited to 25 percent capacity. The Holocaust Museum and National Jewish Museum are still closed to in-person visitors. Despite some moves to opening, Rugel doesn’t see museums returning to pre-pandemic operations anytime soon.

“Still feels like we’re pretty far away from being able to have large groups in the building together,” Rugel said. “We used to get maybe a couple hundred people around Chanukah. It’s just hard to see that happening. Definitely not this year.”

The Future

The pandemic has led Jewish museums to rethink how they showcase their exhibits to the public, how their facilities are cleaned and how they generate revenue. Blond said interactive exhibits, where guests touch objects, will have to be reconsidered. But there is much potential for experimentation with virtual and outdoor exhibits. And the pandemic is an event many museums are working to document.

Blond’s Capital Jewish Museum, among others, has been collecting and archiving pandemic-related material in order to retell the Jewish experience during this time to people in the future.

“Museums were founded on this principle of preserving material culture and documenting the past,” Blond said. “The reason that you collect and document is so that we don’t forget this moment. So that someday, we’re able to use the lessons of this time to apply to the conversations of the future.”

In this vein, Temple Judea plans to host an exhibition on locally made pandemic-related art in January. The focus will be on the artist reaction and experience in the pandemic retold visually.

Yaverbaum said the moment is an exciting time of change with plenty of improvising Jewish culture and unfolding history for museums to document.

“The potential of Jewish museums to collect and crystallize those stories can be extremely powerful and important for the Jewish community at large,” Yaverbaum said. “This moment in Jewish history is so important. And our Jewish museums are the natural repositories and storytellers that will ensure that these stories and this history is preserved, and that the material heritage of the American Jewish experience is preserved for the future.”

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