Struggling Canadian Museums Exhibit Courage During Pandemic

James Hart’s “The Dance Screen” is a must-see masterpiece that can be found at Whistler’s Audain Art Museum. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

Whether it’s learning about Indigenous rights at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg or holding a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s tooth at Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta it’s difficult to imagine a trip without visiting a museum or art gallery.

Yet this void is the reality. COVID-19 has grounded the travel industry and wreaked havoc on the world’s museums, including those in Canada.

I spoke with Anne-Marie Hayden, Public Affairs and Museum Advancement Deputy Director for the Canadian Museums Association (CMA). Hayden provided a detailed look at the health of museums in this country and discussed what visitors can do to support the sector.

Vacay.ca: One in eight museums around the world may never re-open due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a UNESCO report. Can you give us a picture of the impact COVID-19 has had on museums in the Canadian marketplace?

You talking to me? A woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) stands guard at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

Anne-Marie Hayden: There are definitely concerns about the ability for museums to weather the impacts of the pandemic, not only now but in the longer term, especially following the reports you mention from UNESCO and ICOM. Meanwhile, the American Alliance of Museums is suggesting one in three museums may close permanently.

The pandemic has had significant financial impact, no question. In Canada we know that many museums had to do layoffs. Several were not able to open this summer — the most important period for generating revenue. Those that did re-open have been dealing with decreased visitors, reduced tourism, the impact on fundraising, and other events. And then, of course, there are the costs involved with implementing the necessary health and safety measures.

Vacay.ca: Canada has so many awesome off-the-beaten track museums in rural areas as well. One of my favourite tiny museums is McCrae House in Guelph. How are the little guys holding up? Are they getting the support they need?

 Hayden: You’re right — there are so many truly wonderful museums of all shapes and sizes, right across our country, and many of the smaller museums are among the most vulnerable.

We’re so proud to be representing this sector. Museums have shown an incredible dedication to serving the community — including parents, educators, and children — during this time, despite being tremendously hard hit by the pandemic. Canadian museums have looked for ways to reach their communities online, although unfortunately not all have the capacity or the resources to deliver these online programs, so this remains a great challenge.

The shoes of a young Titanic disaster victim at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax will break your heart but it’s critical that these stories are protected so that we can learn from them and reflect. (Rod Charles file photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca: Are there any issues that are not known to the public that we should be aware of?

Hayden: Museum closures and the financial impact of the pandemic on museums has certainly increased risks to the collections and belongings museums hold.  As I mentioned earlier, museum collections, and their safety, have been a priority for nearly every museum we’ve spoken with. While closed, we’ve heard that some museums are staggering staff to attend to collections and ensure that environmental controls are in place to protect them. Meanwhile, we know other museums have been broken into because of reduced security.

Vacay.ca: Have you been getting support from the federal, provincial, and municipal governments? Is there more that can be done?

Hayden: There has been some short-term financial support at various levels of government, for which we’re grateful. There was, for example, $53 million in emergency support dedicated to museums from the federal government and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which we know has been accessed by the sector.

The challenge, however, is that we expect the effects will be longer term. What’s really needed is an update of the more than 30-year-old national museum policy and greater, more stable funding for museums. This is absolutely critical to ensuring museums’ resilience to survive the current situation and future challenges that arise.

I’d invite you to read a recent submission to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and our brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance which explain this. [Those documents can be accessed here and here.]

Are you keen to embrace  your  inner “Maverick”? Look up and feel the need for speed at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. (Rod Charles photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca: Now it’s not all doom and gloom! Can you give us any updates?

Hayden: For those museums have been able to reopen, I can tell you they have been very adaptive in adopting new strategies to be able to welcome visitors: employing various means to conduct secure contact tracing where required by government; sanitizing items safely, or removing items from use where they cannot be sanitized for preservation reasons; and using timed ticketing to control crowd size within their spaces.

Museums are some of our most trusted institutions. So those that are opening are only doing so if they are confident they can do so safely. Meanwhile, there is still a significant number of museums, particularly those that are small, volunteer-run, and that run on a seasonal basis, reliant on tourism, that are not opening and some are taking this closure as an opportunity to tend to special projects.

Vacay.ca: And to keep on a positive track, many museums have done an outstanding job with a virtual presence that has allowed people to “visit” the museum online. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives being done online to allow people to have access during this difficult time?

A small museum worth a visit is the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre in Tadoussac, Quebec, where visitors can enjoy a “Jonah” moment. (Rod Charles photo for Vacay.ca)

Hayden: Absolutely! As I said earlier, while not all have the capacity to do so — and that remains a challenge — there have been a number of Canadian museums reaching people online in wonderful ways.

The CMA team pulled together a list of virtual resources from museums that could be of benefit to families and teachers, particularly during this period of back-to-school, whether in person or via remote schooling. I hope your readers will check it out. 

We featured a number of these in the Summer edition of our magazine, Muse (please check it out — we lowered the firewall so your readers could access). For example:

The Musée d’art de Joliette in Quebec launched a completely virtual exhibit called Quarantined Museum, which engaged artists of all proficiencies in their community and encouraged thematic discussions on art.

The Western Development Museum in Saskatchewan developed their own mini-version of the Food Network, offering cooking lessons based on historic recipes from its collection.

Meanwhile, the focus on digital museum activities also gave pre-existing activities a chance to shine. For example, Perspectives on Biodiversity — Sturgeon Harpoon Knowledge Web, a project developed by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver in conjunction with the Musqueam First Nation, which had won the Governor General’s History Award before the pandemic hit.

This tiny dinosaur is depicted fleeing from danger. You can view it at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. (Rod Charles photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca: Is there anything else that you would like the public to know about Canadian museums?

Hayden: We would love for the public to know that museums make a considerable contribution to the economy and society. I’m not sure everyone realizes just how much. For example, Canada gains nearly $2.9 billion a year in economic benefits from museums, and for every dollar invested, society gets nearly four dollars in benefits. Museums across Canada welcome an estimated 30 million annual visitors — that’s over five million more than the entire NHL during the 2018-19 season. In addition to this, they contribute to improved literacy, the online environment, social inclusion, and overall health. In fact, users of what we call the “GLAM” sector (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) report overall health as 14 per cent better than non-users.

Vacay.ca: Museums are such an important part of the tourism experience. Why are museums so critical and why do you love them so much? And why should we as travellers make it a priority to visit them after COVID-19 is under control?

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Nova Scotia houses several machines that the famed inventor created, including a replica of HD-4, an early research hydrofoil watercraft. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

Hayden: Museums are at the heart of a just and knowledgeable society. They educate and inspire. They house our culture and history. They create a sense of community and belonging. They allow us to better understand our past, our present, and shape our future. They spark conversations and reflection. They build empathy and understanding for each other and remind us how diversity makes us stronger.

Given this and what I said a moment ago about the contributions to the Canadian economy and society, we hope tourists will visit our museums and continue to reap all the amazing benefits.

For more information about the Canadian Museums Association, click here. Vacay.ca also recently published an interview with David Lefebvre, vice-president, federal and Quebec at Restaurants Canada.  Read ‘It’s Going to Be Carnage,’ Restaurants Canada Exec Says About COVID-19 Impact.

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Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.