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2020: A Year of Care and Creativity at NRF’s Museums

On January 3rd, 2021, the museums of NRF completed their 2020 season, and the museum staff closed Rough Point to the public until our reopening in early spring of 2021.  Because I am a tad superstitious, I have held off on writing about the success (and challenges) of the season. However, now that it is well and fully over, and thankfully with no reported cases of COVID-19 from any of our visitors or front-line staff during the season, I can finally take the rabbit’s foot out of my pocket, the horseshoe off my doorway, stop asking the Magic 8 Ball for predictions about the future, and share a little bit about how it all turned out.

As with so many industries, the challenges posed to the museum field by the spread of COVID-19 have proven daunting. For example, as some readers of NRF’s blogs may know, my previous position was at a museum in Los Angeles.  I know from conversations with my former colleagues that, at the time that I am writing this piece, not a single museum in Los Angeles County has opened its doors to the public since the closures in Mid-March of 2020.  This sad reality has resulted in countless layoffs, financial uncertainty for institutions and individuals alike, and numerous careers delayed or destroyed.

At the outset of the pandemic, there was no reason to think that what has happened in California’s museums wouldn’t happen in Newport as well. Thankfully, at Rhode Island’s museums in general, and Newport’s museums in particular, things progressed differently. Our state government has done a very fine job of trying to help businesses open safely and as soon as possible.  Based on the guidance of the state, most of Newport’s cultural institutions were able to open to the public by July (sometimes sooner) provided they developed and adhered to a detailed safety plan that integrated reduced attendance based on a venue’s square footage, enforced social distancing and mask wearing, added additional cleanings of surfaces, created greater circulation of fresh air, and gathered attendee data in case the state needed it for contact tracing.

NRF’s museum staff began work on our plans well in advance of the Governor’s announcements. Shortly after the March shutdowns, we suspended all public programming and our staff began to create a wonderfully diverse, creative, and robust collection of online programs to share safely a piece of the museum experience with the broader public and to provide opportunities to virtually attend some of the events we had hoped to hold in person throughout our season. If you have not seen these programs yet, I encourage you to visit our YouTube channel by clicking here.  There’s something for everyone, including yoga classes, community spotlights (our Second Sunday series), a two-part jazz concert in the Great Hall at Rough Point, a four part scholarly symposium, and some really wonderful educational pieces on the life of our founder Doris Duke as well as closer looks at our exceptional collection of 18th-century Newport furniture at the Whitehorne House Museum.

Our virtual presence notwithstanding, it was always our hope to reopen our museums to the public as safely and as soon as possible.  By early April, members of my staff and I met weekly to create a COVID-19 plan long before the announcement of any state mandates.  While our concerns were broad-ranging, one particular worry was how to protect our front-line staff, by which I mean the guides, greeters, and other visitor experience staff who typically interact with our visitors in ways that, today, most of us would find risky.  Naturally, we shared similar concerns about our visitors, but our front-line staff, who spend hours at a time encountering the public, would undoubtedly face the most significant health risk if we got any of our planning wrong.

With those risks in mind, we created a wide-reaching COVID plan that included, among other things, required online ticketing, moving our registration process outside at Rough Point (until November when the weather proved too cold), and the suspension of guided tours, creating instead a singular path through our museums with guides stationed throughout.  Once we had everything in place, and the state permitted us to do so, we opened our doors to the public.  The Rough Point Grounds opened in late June, Rough Point itself in early July, and the Whitehorne House Museum ten days after that. On the whole the plan worked well, and its success and adherence to state guidelines was reconfirmed by a surprise visit to Rough Point from the Rhode Island Department of Health in August.

During the season we took feedback from staff and visitors to see if they felt safe and comfortable, and while we received the occasional visitor complaint about our necessary changes and our insistence on mask wearing, I am happy to say that on the whole our staff felt safe and most of our visitors enjoyed their time with us while also commenting positively on the ways in which we had worked to ensure their safety.

Our museums were a respite for our visitors during these difficult times.  Anecdotally, I know that many of our visitors were deeply appreciative that we could provide a pleasant and safe distraction from the difficulties of our new normal and the never-ending stream of bad news.  At the Whitehorne House Museum, we provided an opportunity for our visitors to get away from the crowds of people on lower Thames Street so that they could spend a quiet hour safely enjoying our exceptional furniture collection and learning about Newport’s past from our talented guides.  At Rough Point, sales of our grounds passes grew exponentially, and many visitors would spend hours outside enjoying the boundless seascape, our exceptionally beautiful gardens, and the Fredrick Law Olmstead designed grounds.  On my evening drive home, I would pass Prescott Farm, and see the parking lot filled with minivans and kids and parents feeding the ducks in the pond.  I suppose that none of these activities can replace the concerts, weddings, trips to visit distant friends and relatives, and other plans that so many of us wound up cancelling in 2020.  Still, I am extremely pleased to know that we offered a pleasant, if somewhat less hoped for, alternative form of entertainment. And I am most pleased to note that we achieved all of this without a single reported case of COVID-19 from any of our staff or visitors.

Indeed, that last point, the absence of a COVID case, is the thing that I am most pleased about this past season and, likely, the thing that we are least responsible for achieving.  For while I would like to think that our success was the result of exceptional planning, skillfully executed by a devoted and brilliant staff (which in some sense it was), I still can’t help but think that part of our success was sheer luck. Nevertheless, the thing that I most want our readers to know is that the NRF museum staff took the COVID-19 threat seriously every day (we still do), and every day they brought their energy, creativity, and brilliance to our museums to ensure the best and safest museum experience possible for our visitors. They did so because we care about each other’s safety and about the health and safety of our potential visitors, something we will continue to do now and in the years to come.

We look forward to demonstrating that care and creativity to all of you in the 2021 season, which begins in late March and runs until just before Thanksgiving followed by weekend programming until the new year. We will continue to take everyone’s health and safety quite seriously while simultaneously planning to create new opportunities to reach people remotely and to engage people in person as the world becomes a little safer and we can all congregate together a little more. You have my promise that (as with the season just past) the entire NRF museum staff will do everything that they can to keep you safe, educated, and entertained, and if you just want to be left alone to spend a few hours on our the grounds at Rough Point, you can do that too.  We’ll see you in Newport!

By Dr. Erik Greenberg, Director of Museums, Newport Restoration Foundation

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