SEARSPORT – The pandemic has created an incredible challenge for many businesses, not just trying to operate within the guidelines, but survival. Almost a year ago many businesses were forced to close their doors temporarily. After a couple of months some were allowed to open with limited capacity, but for many the number of customers were not enough to sustain them financially. The government offered assistance and some were able to take advantage of this and survive.
The hardest hit industry was tourism and many of these businesses still struggle to survive. We know about the hotels and restaurants, but the maritime museums were also hard hit as they could not safely open within the CDC guidelines. Karen Smith is the Executive Director of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and she, with the assistance of the Board and staff, has been able to keep the Museum going in the right direction.
Karen explained, “When we initially went into lockdown everyone just had to go home. Obviously, we had concern about our collections and our buildings because a lot of what we do is being good stewards of what we have. So, we quickly looked at all the guidance that was coming out and then as essential workers were able to get back our buildings and grounds person and also our curator. We wanted at least a couple of people on campus to take care of the physical structure of what we had. Everyone else had to figure out ways to work from home. All our year-around full-time staff were able to keep working. Obviously, the big question was funding. We were able to quickly get in on the first round of the SBA PPP loans. That was huge. Even if we did not have admissions and we didn’t have our store open for the season, we didn’t have our fundraising gala, we would at least have several weeks that we knew we could pay our full-time, year-round staff.”
Every business needed to re-think how they did everything and make sure it was viable for the changes that were taking place. “Basically, we had to decide in the spring how to handle the in-person portion of the season. At that point we all thought that the lockdown would be brief. We decided that what we really didn’t want to do is keep changing our plans. So, we reviewed what we would need to do for safety protocols if we opened fully and we knew we did not want to close completely. We wanted to stay active and engaged with the public. Once we realized that we really couldn’t safely have people going through our buildings, even at the low-capacity levels, we decided to open with mostly outdoor campus tours. We then developed some themes so that we could engage the public and that part worked really well. Before we even opened for the season, we started thinking creatively about how to engage people online, through Zoom and other remote types of programming and we discovered that one of the interesting things about being a maritime museum is that we had a lot of interesting information that people could really relate to in a pandemic. We had historical records of actual quarantines and pandemics, but we also had a lot of parallels with the isolation of life at sea, not being able to travel, not seeing loved ones for long periods of time. So, it was pretty easy to start building really interesting connections to the collections that we have and talking about that.”
Karen continued, “The next big piece was a couple of months in we were starting to get really excited about some of this remote programming that we were able to do and started to think creatively about what we could do remotely that we couldn’t do in-person. So, we wrote a grant that was part of the CARES Act Funding through the National Endowment for the Humanities and then we got one of the very few Federal Grants to help support our remote programming.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to hire back our seasonal interpreters which was one of the hardest decisions that we had to make,” added Karen. “Basically, our admission’s income covers their time and gives them something to do. We were only able to have a couple of them come back to do the guided tours. Then our lead interpreter, we were actually able to hire for more time through the NEH grant. This all was really hard because many of these interpreters have been with us for years and they know so much about our campus and our history.”
The first week of February more Federal assistance arrived. “We just found out yesterday,” explained Karen, “that we had received a second round PPP loan. That will help at least feel some confidence and some security because we still won’t be able to do our fundraising event and that is a big part of our income. We know again we really want to come up with a plan that we can stick with. Our plan is to be open for our full season which is late May from basically Memorial Day through late October. We will be offering a single household guided tours like we did last season that were very successful. We will also have our store open for the full season and we will have a new exhibit in there that people can see. If things look good and we feel comfortable, for peak season, July and August, we are hoping to be able to be open more broadly.”
With a lower number of visitors on campus the Museum decided to do some upgrading. “We decided to really focus on trying to get some investment in our campus,” stated Karen, “and get some projects done. The sea captain’s home was fully painted. We added a new heating system to the Duncan House, which is currently the Administrative home of the Maine Ocean School. We also are working on heat in some other buildings where we had some antiquated heating systems. In the Merrithew House, where the shipbuilding and maritime industries exhibits are, we are adding new heat pumps, so we can better regulate the conditions for our collections in there.”
The Museum is also going to change their permanent exhibits over the next couple years. “Every summer we put up new temporary exhibits,” added Karen, “and we are going through right now reinterpreting the sea captain’s home. We will be adding a new permanent orientation exhibit that gives people a full sense of the campus. This year we will keep Merrithew House closed where we tell the maritime industry and shipbuilding stories and we will redo those exhibits. By the time we come out of all of this and the campus is fully open again it is going to be quite transformed.”
Karen has been the director of the Museum since April 2018. During that time, a lot of changes has taken place. She explained, “We mostly focused on some of the capital infrastructure. We had also been without an education director for several years and I think that having someone dedicated to that really adds a vibrancy not just through programming but she works with our curatorial stuff and our photo achieves to think about creative ways to bring the work that they do to the public. The focus has just been to think about what our mission is and what is exciting about what we preserve and share that.”
Some feel that Museums could have a tough time surviving in the future. Karen said, “The most successful museums are the ones that really engage with their communities and are thinking about how we learn about the past and our role in the future of our community. Our Museum, one of the coolest things, is that it is not just specifically a history museum. We have a lot of disciplines: we have our photography, we have an amazing fine art collection, interesting things about ecology and we have the history.”
Through solid leadership, a positive difference can be made by re-evaluating everything you do, especially in a fast-changing world. Even if it is working well today, it may not in the near or distant future. If you can identify the changes of interests you can be prepared and that increases your chances of surviving.