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How The Pandemic Has 'Disrupted The Dominoes' Of Traveling Museum Exhibits

The team with the traveling exhibit, 'Maya: The Exhibition' carefully unpacks the exhibit in March 2020.
The team with the traveling exhibit, 'Maya: The Exhibition' carefully unpacks the exhibit in March 2020.

Maya: The Exhibition is extending its run at the Cincinnati Museum Center through April 4, 2021. The coronavirus pandemic not only closed the exhibit for the start of its run here, but is sending museums and people who book touring exhibits scrambling to juggle years worth of future plans.

"COVID has turned the Tetris of scheduling for temporary exhibits completely on its side," explains Elizabeth Pierce, Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) president and CEO. "It has disrupted all of the travel plans and therefore all of the dominoes that go along with that."

The exhibit exploring the daily lives, religion, politics and sophistication of the Maya civilization was set to open March 14. However, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency March 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against gatherings two days later, and shortly thereafter the nation went into various forms of lockdown. The exhibit eventually debuted when the museum center reopened in July.

"The Maya exhibition will be extended here because it cannot yet go to its next venue in Canada," Pierce tells WVXU. "The Guatemalan team would much rather it continue to be here and protected and available to our community than having to travel with it at the moment."

Traveling exhibits are important because they bring new displays into museums that might otherwise not have a lot of rotating content. That encourages more visitors, and revenue for museums that charge for admission or special events. It also helps museums meet their missions of bringing the "outside world" to their communities.

Nationwide, museums are still suffering from the pandemic. According to the American Alliance of Museums, nearly 30% remain closed since March, and those that have reopened are operating on average at 35% of their regular attendance. The figures come from a study conducted by the AAM.

Additionally the AAM reports, "more than half of responding museums have had to furlough or lay off staff. Overall, respondents indicate that approximately 30% of staff are currently out of work. Museums most frequently listed the following positions as being affected by the layoffs: frontline (68%), education (40%), security/maintenance (29%), and collections staff (26%)."

Touring exhibit schedules can be tricky enough, let alone when you have to factor in international travel and moving around large chunks of cargo, much of it fragile and/or valuable.

Not all museums are equipped to handle rotating exhibitions. For example, a museum might have to pack up a permanent gallery in order to make space for a temporary show. Museums work on advanced timelines, figuring out a Tetris-like game of when an exhibit might be available versus when the museum is capable of hosting.

CMC's Advantage

Pierce says Cincinnati has a leg up in this department.

"We are looking off into the future for several years, but because we also have the ability to have a dedicated space for special exhibitions, we can change our schedule in a much more nimble way than other organizations that don't have open gallery space," she points out.

That means the CMC is able to change its schedule and bring in an exhibit with just a few months notice while others might have to wait years. The CMC's traveling space is 16,000-square feet, Pierce says, making it capable of handling some of the biggest exhibits on offer.

One upside to exhibits being stuck wherever they are right now is local audiences are able to experience them for longer, ideally making up for lost time - and dollars - during pandemic closures, assuming, that is, the museum is open and operating, which Cincinnati is.

Pierce says the international exhibit traffic jam is giving the CMC a chance to rethink its future plans, too.

"It's creating conversations as we look at the calendar out, do we still want to do the exhibits that we thought we wanted to do, and are there new things that are available because other organizations can't accommodate the changes in the schedules," she ponders.

In Cincinnati, Pierce says no planned future exhibits have been canceled, though some are being pushed back based on new schedules. Museum directors will be watching as calendars get reworked, and Pierce adds the CMC is keeping its "eyes peeled" in case something big and unexpected comes available.

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