Courtesy of Cornell University

The Johnson Museum of Art is one of the museums that has shifted more exhibits online as a result of the pandemic.

April 29, 2020

Online Exhibits Become the New Normal for Ithaca Museums

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Experiencing one of Ithaca’s museums no longer requires strolling through galleries. Instead, patrons can learn about artwork, view livestreams of exotic animals and participate in interactive Zoom calls all from the comfort of their own homes, no matter where they might be located.

Museums, forced to shut down, have found ways to adapt virtually during the pandemic.

The Museum of the Earth, located in Northwest Ithaca, is a natural history museum that went with this route. Employees digitized as much of the museum as they could before it closed March 13.

Even before the pandemic, the Museum of Earth had previously collected various online and digital materials, easing the online transition. Jon Hendricks Ph.D ’05, the museum’s director of science communication, explained that the museum created an online exhibit for a prior exhibit called Living Fossils, becoming a “proof of concept” and providing a model for the museum going forward.

The History Center in Tompkins County decided to take similar measures to remain operational during the shutdown.

The center still has its research library and collections available through its website, but has shifted to a more active role online by recording how Ithaca is coping during the pandemic.

Ben Sandberg ’17, executive director of the History Center, discussed an ongoing effort to ask the Ithaca community to document their responses to COVID-19 to build a collection for the center’s archives, offering a glimpse into the current day-to-day lives of Ithacans for future generations.

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art also moved its exhibits online, expanding the website’s exhibition pages to include texts accompanying each work of art.

The museum is also launching an online journal meant to “share stories about our exhibition work behind the scenes — with perspectives from curators, educators, registrars, preparators, faculty, and students,” said Jessica Martinez, director of the Johnson Museum.

While most museums in Ithaca have decided to take their exhibits online, interactive museums like the Sciencenter chose a different approach.

From Monday to Friday at 10:30 a.m., Sciencenter hosts an interactive Zoom video call where up to 70 families can join the museum to interact with projects made with household materials.

In addition to this interactive event, the museum manages a constant live feed of the animals — including snakes, fish, salamanders and frogs — at the museum. Twice a week, this stream includes a tour of the animal room where viewers can watch the animals being fed.

Due to the success of the online platform, the museum is also possibly considering having this interactive Zoom meeting become a permanent part of the museum’s activities, according to Michelle Kortenaar, executive director of the Sciencenter.

However, Kortenaar acknowledged that this was a difficult time for the museum.

“It’s a challenging time of year for this to happen to us because this is a time of year where we would have the most visitors, in May and June we would have had a field trip every single day from a school,” Kortenaar said.

Other than the financial strains, museums are often reliant on volunteers who guide visitors and prepare exhibits.

Even though volunteers cannot physically help out, museums are finding ways for volunteers to stay engaged. For example, the History Center has mainly used volunteers to run its Online History Forge Project, a digital mapping project that can allow people to chart the evolution of communities and societies over time.

It is unlikely that museums will be able to stay closed for an extended period of time, but there is still no set date to reopen.

The Sciencenter and the History Center are considering opening up their exhibits in phases. While the details aren’t completely in place, the museums may mandate workers and visitors to constantly use gloves and masks and implement a cap on the number of visitors in the museums.

The Sciencecenter’s goal is to minimize risk while also maximizing the most essential exhibits of the museum, according to Kortenaar.

Initially, the Museum of the Earth decided to coordinate its opening with the school district, which is set to open on May 15. However, this goal is unlikely as the museum now does not expect to reopen until July 1, at the earliest.

Correction, April 30, 5:56 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Tompkins County History Center and its digital mapping project. It is the History Center and Online History Forge Project, not the Historical Center and Online Historical Forge Project. The article has since been updated to reflect these changes.