Rebekah Munson is a graduate student at the University of South Florida with a major focus on Medieval Sicily and a minor focus on Digital Bioarchaeology. During her time in graduate school she has worked on numerous digital archaeological projects and currently is the editorial assistant for The Historian.
Global Time of Crisis and Museums: A Frontline View.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted many factors of daily life in different directions and restructured how people are able to work, shop, travel, and participate in typical life events. As social distancing has become a new normal for many, with many working remotely, standard operating procedures have shifted. This is especially interesting as it pertains to museums because they fill a unique niche in society, and each museum has its own mission whether it is a living history museum or a fine art museum. While the focus of any given museum is different, they are typically institutions who seek to educate and inform the public of a variety of facets of the human condition from science and nature to history to art. Many famous museums have taken steps to put their collections online so that people anywhere have access to their collections from the safety of their home. Hosting collections online, however, is a very topical look at how museums and their staff are handling this global crisis. To further understand what is happening on the front lines with museum staff during this transition, I spoke with Megan Little who is a collections technician at Mount Vernon, the mansion of George Washington.
RM: What is your role (at Mount Vernon), and what do you do when there is not a pandemic? ML: My title is Collections Technician so, basically, I help take care of the objects on the estate. Normally it’s me and three assistant collections managers (we call them ACMs) who clean the mansion every day as well as handle any object movements, inventory, and etcetera.
RM: How has the time of crisis shifted the role or focus of your museum?
ML: The crisis has not really shifted the role or focus of the museum, rather it has shifted how the mission is shared. People are still learning about George Washington and his home, just not in person through guided tours and visits.
RM: Were there any plans in place in case of some type of major crisis?
ML: There is already a disaster plan for any major crisis that has procedures for crisis.
RM: What is the museum doing during this time? (in terms of programming, increased online presence/content, etc.)
ML: The museum is mainly concentrating on outreach through online platforms. There are live streams with the President of the estate on Facebook and Instagram where he discusses the history of one particular room in the mansion (he lives on the estate so he can walk over) as well as live videos with education staff members from their homes where they answer questions from the public. These videos concentrate on different topics and time periods relevant to George Washington.
RM: Did you have any mechanisms to help you improvise and shift operations and procedures? Have they been useful? Why or why not?
ML: We are lucky enough to be a larger museum, so we have more tools and staff available to make the shift easier. As far as specific tools and procedures, I would say that the fact that we
have our own departments such as IT and security has been useful and made the transition smoother as all the directions have been coordinated and the same.
RM: How has the transition been to working from home?
ML: The shift to working at home has been equally difficult and easy. As a collections staff member, I am used to working with the objects: cleaning, inventory, etc. While working from home gives me the chance to catch up on paperwork and other desk work, I miss the hands-on aspect of my job. So at least for me, the hard part has been adjusting to how my job has temporarily shifted to something more remote.
During this time of crisis, it is important to not only think of the role that museums are playing through their online content to stay relevant and providing a platform of accessibility to those who are unable to visit these sites in person – due to quarantine, finances, or disabilities among other reasons – but also to pay attention to those who are facilitating this shift on the front lines. Without the front-line staff, none of this would be possible.
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