Local museums looking to recover from limited visitation

Posted September 27, 2021

This article originally appeared in The Lake County Leader.  By Zen Parry.

Call any of the nine museums of the Mission Valley Museum consortium and you will likely be talking to the founder or a family member involved with the museum. Visit one of those museums and connections to our local community unfold as artifacts come to life through the stories told by the displays.

Small museums in rural areas have struggled during COVID-19, with many museums closing their doors indefinitely. Within the museum community in the Mission Valley that story sits close by, with local museums still recovering from what the pandemic took away — visitors and the chance to create a new story with each person walking through their doors.

The arrival of the global pandemic in March 2020 presented a wave of disruption, led by the immediate impact of no travel and no walk-in visitors, which for many small establishments, especially small rural museums, is their financial lifeblood. The impact of travel bans, cancellations of major events and extended closures created a ripple effect that required new sources of assistance to navigate new challenges.

Gil and Helen Mangels at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson summed up their reality precisely, noting that “Canada closed the border, and we didn’t see more than half of the visitors as we had the previous year. That created a mid-five-figure loss.”

At Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana on Highway 93 east of Charlo, Jo Cheff, executive director and daughter of the founder Bud Cheff Jr., said they had to close Ninepipes Museum for extended periods to ensure their volunteer team stayed safe and healthy.

“Today we are still struggling to get back to volunteer levels that we have always maintained,” Cheff said. “Like many institutions, COVID cost us our annual fundraiser two years in succession, and substantial walk-in traffic that drives our gift shop sales. We haven’t bounced back to where we were before COVID yet.”

The Garden of the Rockies Museum in Ronan, represented by Patti Mocabee and Janette Myers, is operated entirely by volunteers and donations. They also struggled to remain open during their season from June until the end of August. The impact of COVID reducing visitors also means that critical repair work is delayed, creating a cascade of issues and changing priorities, as experienced by all museums in the group.

The Polson Flathead Lake Museum in Polson is closed until 2022, with priorities now shifting to fundraising to repair a leaky roof, sidewalk additions and other infrastructure projects to improve the museum experience and safety for visitors. At the consortium meeting, Executive Director Karen Dunwell commented, “The work of running our museum hasn’t stopped, even if COVID stopped many of our activities,” a sentiment echoed by many members.

Sister Margaret of the Mission Church and Museum in St. Ignatius explained that COVID-19 directly impacted their donations from visitors and gift shop sales, presenting new financial challenges for the church and museum. However, she said, there was an unexpected silver lining. Currently the church is completing the renovation of the murals, requiring extensive scaffolding inside the church, which impacts congregation seating, access to the sanctuary and services.

“When COVID stopped travel, the headache we had of combining services and scaffolding allowed us to livestream services to our parishioners as the restoration work continued safely,” Sister Margaret said.

The People’s Center Tribal Museum and Gift shop was hit with even more to overcome after the disastrous fire of September 2020 resulted in a move to St. Ignatius and reopening as Three Chiefs Cultural Center.

The consortium includes three other members: the Arlee and Jocko Valley Museum, and two just north of St. Ignatius — Four Winds Trading Post, a business run by Preston Miller and his wife, Carolyn Corey; and Fort Connah Historical Site.

Fort Connah is only open to the public by appointment Friday to Monday, April through October, and one full week the first week of May and second week of September. Yet even with this limited public access schedule, they reported that COVID-19 still impacted operations as appointments to visit dried up, along with typical enquiries for other interests.

The group agreed at the consortium meeting that the pandemic created enormous financial pressure while also creating new needs, and if optimistic, new opportunities. At the state level, Montana and various funding agencies stepped in when annual revenue streams dried up, which is a new situation now as the American Relief Plan provides opportunities. However, not every member of the consortium has the resources to write grants or apply for funding, and in many cases, navigating the digital processes can be overwhelming. If one issue emerged from the COVID-19 experience it is how reliant everyone has become on the digital world with websites, social media and the digital channels that support museums — traveler reviews.

Members at the meeting agreed to research available grants, as a consortium or individually. The museum world is supported by the Montana History Foundation, the Montana Department of Commerce for Tourism, The Greater Polson Community Foundation, Humanities Montana and the National Endowment for Humanities, alongside each museums’ donors and supporters. Though the applications are competitive, the grant support has meant that programs can be relaunched, and typical museum activities can be scheduled again.

At the end of August, despite the wildfires nearby and the heat and smoke that filled the valley, tourists did return and visited museums. As schools return to their classrooms, there is hope that with safety measures, school visits to museums will resume, along with walk-in visitors during the fall days. It is still too early to know if walk-in numbers have trended toward pre-pandemic numbers, or if school visits will return. There is promise as familiar conversations return, such as: “Where are you from?” and “When was the last time you visited us?”

The pandemic itself, and the emotions and changes it has brought about, are now a part of the history museums will tell. Now when local artists are featured, or musicians are playing at the museum, there is a new story being told, as they have also been touched by the pandemic. Their businesses have been impacted the same as the museums have, with bookings and income starting to emerge again.

Visit missionvalleymuseums.org for information and links to all consortium member museums, each of which relies on visitors, sharing stories between exhibits, people and histories.