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Interior of the Bolton Steam Museum. Photo by author.

I love museums.

I’ve been to some of the big ones. In fact I’ve been in parts of the British Museum that aren’t open to the public, while a student.

But ya know…sometimes, some of the best experiences aren’t at those big institutions. They’re at tiny, local museums, run by people who mostly aren’t paid. Genuine labors of love that focus on some niche…like the museum above, which is a museum of industrial stationary steam engines. Get your goggles! (If the museum seems empty, it was technically not open but they let us in anyway as they were there).

The Risk to Small Museums

COVID-19 has many people simply not traveling this year. Most of those who are are seeking vacations they can do in isolation; they’re renting cabins, putting up tents, going to obscure state parks to try and avoid the crowd.

Museums, especially indoor museums, are suffering. The museum in the photo is apparently doing fine, as they rely more on donations from enthusiasts than on fees from visitors (in fact, admission is free, although we gave them what I thought was a fair price).

But most small museums do rely on visitor fees, not to improve, but to survive. They also rely on gift shop sales, school trip fees, events, etc.

And many are threatened. Some predict as many as a third of U.S. museums may close permanently, their collections dispersed or destroyed. Over 40% of those that think they have a good chance of surviving will have to cut staff and reduce events. Ironically, one threatened institution is Jenner’s house… We’re talking 12,000 museums here, small, local collections that might cover quirky Americana or highlight indigenous lives. And that’s just in the U.S. Local museums in Africa and India and the Middle East are also threatened.

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Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

Casualties Already

Here are some museums we’ve already lost permanently:

  • World of Speed in Oregon, a motor sports museum that also had a program to teach high school students auto repair.
  • The Children’s Museum of Richmond has closed one of its locations.
  • The Museum of Digital Art in Zurich.
  • The Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
  • The Georgia Radio Museum in LaGrange.
  • The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles
  • Sights and Sounds Black Cultural Museum in Dekalb County, Georgia
  • The A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles
  • The Children’s Museum of the Sierra

These aren’t the kind of museums that people rightfully criticize for profiting from stolen artifacts.

They’re local, they’re beloved, and their loss is incalculable.

What Can You Do?

If you have a local museum, find out how they are doing. If you can spare them a bit of cash, do.

Many museums now have e-commerce sites for their gift stores. Or perhaps you can help them out with a bit of time.

People are more important than museums. Absolutely. But museums are important to people and the pandemic is putting them under threat, along with the educational programs they support.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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