Rachael Mullins, President and CEO of the Putnam Museum & Science Center in Davenport, discusses the venue's operations during this period of social distancing. We spoke on Thursday, April 23 (which happened to be her birthday).
We had actually started anticipating pretty early that our school groups would be impacted by the virus, and started to anticipate the need to move more science activities and things like that online. We couldn't have imagined how bad it could get, of course, but early on we started building in some of our science content. It wasn't until we actually closed our doors mid-March that we thought, “Let's do behind-the-scenes, let's do virtual tours,” and we started to layer in the collections so there would be an opportunity for people to see strange objects from the archive and things like that. (Laughs.)
We also have reached out to our community to ask them to begin to document this time in the lives of their families, or the lives of their businesses, their churches, or whatever their affiliation is. Because a part of the role of the Putnam is to collect local history, and to really commemorate these major milestones in our community. We have a significant local-history archive, and have begun to receive stories from people about their experience with COVID-19.
We were looking back in the collection, actually, and found some artifacts from the Spanish flu [era] and from the Ebola scare. So we were able to look back and see trends in how local companies have responded to crisis, and are starting to document the contribution of local companies that are shifting production, for example, and celebrate that as part of the collection.
Virtual Tours and Activities: Liberated Voices/Changed Lives and OMg: Elements of Surprise
Liberated Voices was a new exhibit – it's called a “Putnam original” because it's actually drawn directly from the collection – and we had just opened it on March 7. So it felt like it was really important to be able to provide a virtual tour. We hope that people will still visit when we reopen because the exhibit will be open through August, which is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the 19th Amendment, so this is just a sneak peek. But they will see some of the artifacts that are featured there as well as some of the themes that are being explored by the exhibit. (Learn about the exhibit.)
And OMg: Elements of Surprise is another new exhibit – it's also a “Putnam original” drawn from the collection – that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Mendeleev's periodic table. So it's a little bit of geek science (laughs) for those of us who grew up with the periodic table on the wall in science class. But it celebrates elements that are all around us, and the role of science in pop culture and media and commercial products.
We also have a science lab built into the exhibit, and on Saturdays, we had been giving chemistry demonstrations for school groups that were coming in throughout the week. So we've shifted that online, and those chemistry experiments are now available on our Web site. They're chemistry demonstration using simple household products that people can do in their own kitchens. It's kind of a “kitchen chemistry” opportunity for families that are stuck at home looking for something to do with the kids.
That's what's fun about it as a resource: It's kind of “Putnam approved.” It's all led by our education team, so it aligns directly with the science standards in the schools, and uses safe products from home. So it's a great opportunity for families to connect.
We have a new partnership emerging with Vera French [Mental Heath Center] to offer our families a youth journal of their COVID experience. So as they're at home and kind of home-schooling now, students can be reflecting on their experience in a safe way, and it provides language for families to guide their children through the discussion. We don't know if families will be dealing with anxiety or grief or fear with their children, and it links them to resources through Vera French to make sure families have the right tools for those conversations. We're just finishing that now – the content is pretty complete, and it's in the design and layout process – so we're hoping that'll be out in a couple weeks.
But we're kind of sneaking new things onto the Web site regularly, so keep an eye out. We just had up, on our Facebook site, one of our curators actually cleaning some of the taxidermied animals. (Laughs.) So we'll be doing more of that behind-the-scenes work that people find fascinating. And we are hoping to feature more and more of the collection and some of our permanent exhibits as well. We have new things coming online every week, and we do have a newsletter opportunity that people can register online for if they want to receive more in-depth updates from the Putnam.
We are still planning for our summer camps. They're some of our most popular programing throughout the year, and we think this year, in particular, families are going to be looking for those opportunities. We're planning to start those in July so that we avoid the June dates – we may be reopened in June, but we don't want to count on that for our families who really need a predictable schedule this summer.
But we will be offering some of the favorites – the Harry Potter camp, and we're going to be bringing Ghostbusters back this year, too, so that'll be fun. We're also looking at a reduced camp size, so that parents know their children will be in a small group setting.
How to Support the Putnam … and Each Other
I worry for arts and cultural organizations in particular, because we're kind of everyone's last thought when we think about charitable giving and how to spend our consumer dollars. I have a background and a history in the arts, and we don't traditionally fare well in these kinds of emergencies. We're not high on the hierarchy, you know what I mean? (Laughs.)
So I think just spreading the word on some of this content would be a way to support us – and that's across all the cultural providers. We're really trying to stay in touch with our community and fulfill our mission during this time. So getting the word out on some of these virtual resources is helpful. And let's also be sharing virtual resources and online resources – sharing information. We all offer such diverse opportunities, and this is a great opportunity, I think, to piece together some of these virtual platforms into a full experience for families at home.
But just as important, when we reopen our doors, is for people to come back. The virtual experience, as wonderful as it is, does not replace the real thing. So we want our families to come back and enjoy the authentic experience, and we're looking forward to reopening to our community and welcoming families back through the doors at the Putnam. And we keep hearing from our families that they are ready to come back.