Evolution of a Science Museum in a Global Pandemic

At the end of February, I was 1800 miles away in the state of Texas. My husband and I had to close down a bank account that was still open (we used to live in Texas, and this bank required we be there in person to do this) and we were able to pair that trip with meeting a new baby that dear friends of ours had just had, and I was able to stay on for a conference that took place in Waco, Texas, for the Informal Science Education Association – an association that I served on the board of for a number of years and at this year’s conference and annual meeting had just rolled into an ex officio capacity. It was a thoroughly enjoyable week of seeing old friends, visiting favorite restaurants, and gathering with the community that I had been a part of for so many years. Informal science educators are a lot of fun (if you’ve ever been to one of our EcoTarium21 events you know this!) and many of the people at this conference were old co-workers, colleagues, employees, employers and above all – dear friends.

That week seems like it was years ago now. When I was on my way back to Massachusetts, I was driving up I-35 in Texas to the airport and the news about the first COVID-19 death in the United States, in Seattle, had just happened. I had three hours of driving and lots of thinking to do and in that moment, and based on what I had read from China, South Korea, Japan and Italy I thought that this virus would impact us much like the Swine Flu had in 2009.

In 2009 I was working at the Dallas Zoo and we were embarking on a new construction project that had our entire education department having to relocate from one side of the (110-acre) zoo to the other. In the middle of that move, Swine Flu hit our region and it was just at the beginning of our spring peak season. Suddenly every field trip, every overnight and every education program was being canceled for the spring as schools and scouting organizations were banning all programming to protect their constituents. Financially this created an extremely challenging time for our organization, and even worse we had colleagues who became sick. With this memory in my mind I returned to Worcester and the EcoTarium on March 2nd and quickly got to work.

We have an amazing team at the EcoTarium, our staff are top-notch and among those staff are our executive leadership team – our vice presidents (Kerry who oversees Advancement, Cristoff who oversees Experience and Jenni who oversees Shared Services – our defacto CFO). I gathered this small team together and discussed the modeling we would need to do, assuming that all programmatic revenue would be lost for the spring and that our admissions revenue would be reduced for a few months. As a science museum we depend on a combination of earned, contributed, and endowment revenues to fund our lean operations. As a science museum with a strong zoo component, it is very hard for us to trim back on those operational costs as animal care is constant, ongoing, and of the utmost importance. Also, of the utmost importance was doing everything we could to preserve jobs.

As we were working on models, I was on phone calls with regional and national museum colleagues about COVID-19 and the potential impacts. On one call a major museum in the Pacific Northwest announced the financial impact they were projecting, based on other state models, and the layoffs they had to do. It was on this specific call that we received the news that we should be preparing for closures that extended through the summer. That same day, later on, we received news that North High might have had an exposure – we immediately shut down the museum (we have a wonderful partnership with the school and had our high school interns at the museum that week) to clean the museum on Friday, March 13th.

While Jenni and I modeled our worst-case financial scenario – a closure of over six months – the incredible EcoTarium team banded together to clean the museum, from head to toe (or nose to tail as we like to say – hashtag animal people). Jenni and I took breaks from number crunching to help clean, we all had a pizza lunch together, and the museum had never looked more sparkling. Michael, one of our custodial staff and one of the most amazingly optimistic people you could ever hope to meet, said later that was one of his favorite work days, because we were all there together, playing music, laughing, and genuinely enjoying being a team. The time since that day has been hard, and I remember Michael’s words almost daily because I know that all of us will be back together in the same place eventually, and that camaraderie is felt daily on our team Zoom calls.

At the end of that day we had an exceptionally clean museum and a worst-case scenario financial model to work with – that model projected a loss of revenue totaling $2 million which is not a pleasant number to be looking at, ever, but especially when your budget is around $3.8 million a year. That is a devastating loss of income. That night, in addition to the stress that came with the budget, was the news that the state was closing schools through a date I don’t even remember now (it’s been pushed back again to June 29th) and we’ll see what May 18th brings in terms of non-essential business closures and reopening the state.

From past experiences through traumatic work events I knew that transparency and communication from myself as the leader of the organization were going to be extremely important (and extremely challenging given that we were quickly not able to physically be in the same space). Throughout this whole process, the staff has been kept informed through an all-staff email chain. We had protocols and policies we had put in place to keep staff and public protected before the closure, and with the budget news and the closure news there was more information to come. In addition to our staff, the Trustees of the EcoTarium were also kept informed. We organized an ad hoc group of the Executive and Finance committees to run scenarios and projections by, and they through this whole process have been incredible sounding boards and supporters to pull us through the pandemic.

Lucy Hale is the President & CEO of the EcoTarium. She has been in the museum industry for nearly 28 years, since she was a high school volunteer at Boston’s Museum of Science, where she worked for 13 years.

Another amazing source of moral support has been our cultural communities here in Worcester, Massachusetts, New England and across the country. Text chains with the other cultural leaders in Central Mass, Zoom calls with New England museum directors, Zoom calls with science museums from across the region and country, and countless phone calls one on one with colleagues and friends from everywhere. Here in Massachusetts the urgency to elevate the crisis our museums across the state are facing has become increasingly apparent as our sources of revenue run dry and our reserves are tapped.

While many of our organizations are fortunate to have endowments, those endowments represent the future health of our institutions. Many of us may have to use them to help us get through the time after the PPP loans end, so that our staff will stay employed, and to use them in what will likely be extremely lean years of 2021 and 2022 – our industry has been told to be prepared for two years of hardship tied to rolling closures from COVID-19, social distancing continuing to be needed, and the hits our endowments and the foundations that support so many of us took when the markets crashed in March. Our endowments are also here to ensure that our organizations endure for decades and centuries to come. The EcoTarium will turn 200 years old in 2025 – we not only want and intend to be a strong and necessary organization in 2025, but for the next 100 years when we celebrate our 300-year anniversary in 2125. Worcester’s major anchor institutions are ingrained into the fabric of this community, both the ones that date back almost as far as us, and the newer organizations such as The Hanover Theatre. I can’t imagine this city, any city, without its museums, gardens, nature centers, zoos, and theaters.

As we sit now, in early May, the EcoTarium has endured a shock to the organization, a big one. But we managed to bring our projected 2 million dollar deficit down to only 1.4 million dollars – a number that would normally be grounds for firing a CEO but in this situation is one that I feel very proud of, and thankful for. We have seen incredible support from our community, with more than 350 individual donations to our COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery Fund, and we received a PPP loan to enable us to bring staff whose hours had been cut back to whole. How we will fund our operations after the eight weeks of the PPP loan, for the rest of the year (and next year) is a puzzle that we are working on piece by piece. Our education team has taken their work into the virtual world, creating content that holds up to the largest museums in the country (if not surpasses it) and our living collections team has stepped up and been presenting engaging and delightful content while ensuring that our animals are cared for (definitely check out Maple the woodchuck running the stairs). Both departments are preparing to launch fee-based virtual programs in addition to the free programming we have been doing and our store is getting ready to go online – streams of revenue we didn’t account for in our worst-case scenario.

We are also prepared to reopen when the state says we can, even if just our beautiful outdoor areas first. We are following guidelines set by the American Alliance of Museums for reopening, including moving to online and timed tickets, and we’re trying to figure out how to build pay-what-you-can tickets to ensure our museum stays accessible to everyone in our community during this challenging time. Technology has not caught up to that functionality yet, but our team is smart and crafty, and I think we have an almost-there solution ready to go.

I don’t know what museums will be like when we reopen. Our current formats are based on decades and centuries of evolution. For us – from a natural history society founded in 1825 to the hands-on indoor/outdoor science museum that we are today- this pandemic has in some ways shaken our industry to the core and in others put a spotlight on why what we do is so important. We need a scientifically literate society. We need the kind of hands-on, evidence-based science education that science museums do so well to be integrated back into the formal classrooms of our country. And we need museums as places to not only learn, but to be inspired by.

How we evolve in the age of COVID-19 and a global pandemic, and an age of technology, are the big goals we are working on at the EcoTarium in the weeks and months that come. The most important thing is that we will reopen, and that we will be here to celebrate our next 200 years.