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Interactive exhibits struggle to reopen in a no-touch environment

As Whatcom County begins to enter phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening, museums like Mindport Exhibits have not been able to fully adjust to new regulations as of Thursday, Oct. 8. // Photo by Holden Predmore

Museums have started opening again, but some have had to make much bigger adaptations.

By Holden Predmore

COVID-19 and the quarantine that came with it have been tough for businesses, with many having to close permanently. The impact on museums and art galleries has not resulted in as many closures, but has come with unique issues many galleries now face.

Hafthor Yngvarson is the director of the Western Gallery and former director of the Reykjavik Art Museum. He has been working with museums for decades.

“No, never, not in my lifetime, have I ever seen anything like this,” said Yngvarson, regarding the impact of COVID-19 on museums. The Western Gallery is currently open by appointment to WWU faculty, staff, and students, Yngvarson said.

However, Whatcom County has entered Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan, which means local museums can begin to open again at 25% capacity, according to the Washington State Coronavirus Response site.

Most museums have begun to welcome visitors again, but some museums have had more trouble adapting their exhibits to a no-contact environment according to Tallie Jones, director of Mindport Exhibits in downtown Bellingham.

“While we remain funded for the time being and are not struggling in that sense, we have some specific challenges related to being an interactive hands-on space,” Jones said. “Almost none of the exhibits in our collection meet the current state guidelines.”

The new guidelines that Phase 2 enacted allowed museums to reopen with a major stipulation: nothing can be interactive unless it is contactless or uses a disposable tool. Art galleries like Mindport and the Family Interactive Gallery at the Whatcom Museum remain closed because of the directive.

“I’ve been so very skeptical of things opening this whole entire time,” Renee Shepherd, an employee at the Family Interactive Gallery, said. “I think COVID numbers going down would make me feel safest, but at the same time I love my job at the FIG and if they summoned me, I’d go back.”

Interactive exhibits may not be able to resume normal operations, but that has not stopped some from trying to adapt interactive exhibits to be no-contact.

“Our exhibit builder and creative director are working hard at building a host of new exhibits that fit the touchless requirement,” Jones said. “Things based on optical illusions, an organ that can be played by placing one's hands above sensors, a flash that captures your shadow against glow in the dark paper and so on.”

Making new exhibits takes time, though. Jones said it’s going to be awhile before any of the contactless exhibits will be ready.

The Family Interactive Gallery is also trying new ideas for COVID-19 safe activities.

“They tried to do some experimental things,” Shepherd said. She added that her section of the Family Interactive Gallery put activities in the tiny libraries around town as an example.

The gallery also has a FIG at Home page on their website for family activities that can be done at home.

On Sept. 28, U.S. House of Representatives Democrats introduced a new “skinny” HEROES Act, which includes $135 million for Museum and Library Services.

“There are so many museums that depend on entry fees, and now they are not getting those funds,” Yngvarson said. “It will help them survive … they are all trying to.”

A list of what Whatcom Museums are currently open is available at the Be in Bellingham website.

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