As museums across Boston tentatively emerge from pandemic-imposed hibernation, one prominent venue has continued to buck the trend: the Boston Children’s Museum, which has remained conspicuously closed to the public since late last year.
It’s not for lack of trying. The Children’s Museum reopened last summer when the state relaxed its occupancy restrictions. But attendance remained modest, hovering around 15 percent as wary crowds steered clear of the museum’s hands-on exhibits.
So when museums were again ordered closed in December, museum president and CEO Carole Charnow said the decision to remain closed was made to focus on enhancing virtual offerings, an effort she said is fundamentally transforming the museum.
“It just seemed like the perfect time to double down,” Charnow said. “This wasn’t going to be a permanent closure, but it gave us a few extra months to try to really rethink how we operate.”
That’s not to say the pandemic has been easy for the Children’s Museum, which has lost an estimated $6 million in revenue. The museum is down about 35 staffers, and there’s no telling how quickly crowds will return once the museum does reopen to the public.
The good news is that the museum will reopen sometime in May, when Charnow said guests will notice spruced-up exhibits and a few surprises.
But the real change has taken place online. The museum spent the past year developing a variety of educational modules, working with community groups and the Boston Public Schools to offer everything from in-class lessons to virtual field trips.
Melissa Higgins, the museum’s senior director of STEAM
(science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics), said virtual offerings are critically important during a year when many students have experienced steep learning loss.
“We’re able to present activities and lessons over multiple sessions that we crafted in partnership with the teachers,” Higgins said. “It’s time intensive, but the impact and the payoff is really good. It really fits with exactly what teachers say their students need.”
The museum has been working most closely with two Boston schools — Rafael Hernández K-8 School and Pauline A. Shaw Elementary School — hosting virtual field trips and offering classroom visits during the school day.
“These are crafted to meet the needs of the schools where they could use some additional support this year,” said Higgins, who added that classroom lessons have focused on engineering challenges and entomology.
Meanwhile, the museum offers two main virtual field trips, one that features sink-and-float experimentation (“haven’t lost any computers yet!”) and another that helps kids build financial literacy.
“The kids work with us to create their own businesses for their community,” Higgins said. “Then they get to visit Zoom rooms where they can shop at each other’s businesses.”
She added the museum also has been working with virtual after-school programs for small groups of students across BPS, offering STEM- and STEAM-focused activities.
“It might be a building challenge where we’re all going to work on creating a bridge ... or it might be doing a scavenger hunt in your house that’s related to a theme,” she said. “It’s kind of the kickoff to their after-school program day, which then goes a little bit more in depth with math and ELA support.”
The museum also has been working with libraries and other community groups across the city to reach very young children via virtual playgroups.
“It’s songs, it’s games, maybe doing some work with your hands for fine motor skills we’re trying to develop,” Higgins said. “A lot of it can translate pretty nicely to Zoom if you’re doing peekaboo or something. Zoom is a perfect platform for that.”
The museum has developed most of these programs during the pandemic. But others, such as Beyond the Chalkboard, an after-school curriculum, already were up and running.
“That was something we already had that we didn’t even have to invent and could immediately start putting out,” Charnow said. “It’s full of many, many activities. I think it’s used in 120 countries.”
Although the museum remains closed to the pubic, it will host a drop-off “Adventure Week” camp April 19-23 for spring break. Higgins added that some activities during the five-day program will feature in-person versions of virtual programs developed during the pandemic.
“It’s the first time where we did something fully virtual that we’re now bringing in-person,” she said, adding there would be “fun museum exploration” as well. “We’ll be drawing on a lot of the activities we created.”
Charnow said this sort of blending of virtual and in-person programming is representative of the museum’s transformation and expanding reach.
“We want to make the in-museum experience more vibrant, more regularly changing, and just as wonderful as people have always expected it to be,” she said. “But what we’re trying to do is pivot the model of the museum from so much emphasis on ‘in the museum,’ to in-home, in-school, and in the community.”