August 15, 2020

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Proceeding with caution

Reopening Manitoba museums deal with fewer visitors, stringent safety regulations; others have opted to keep doors closed for now

Museums teach their visitors about the past.

Museums — what's open

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Manitoba Museum: Saturday, Sunday, Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Winnipeg Railway Museum: Every day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Manitoba Electrical Museum: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday: 1 p.m.-4 p.m.

Le Musée de Saint Boniface Museum: Monday-Saturday, 12:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

Mennonite Heritage Village: (Steinbach) Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (except Thursdays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.), Sundays, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

This year, the teacher has become the student. Board members and employees of several Manitoba museums and galleries have had to learn some hard lessons about COVID-19 and the historic year of 2020.

That’s meant turning off innovative touch-screen exhibits to keep the coronavirus from spreading. For some, it’s meant hiring more staff to prevent visitors from bunching up and failing to maintain recommended social-distancing standards.

For others, such as the Costume Museum of Canada, located in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, 2020 meant closing in March after the coronavirus pandemic reached Canada — and staying that way throughout the summer.

"One of the main things that was cancelled was Manitoba 150. That went down for everybody," says Andrea Brown, the costume museum’s president, of the province’s planned sesquicentennial celebrations. "That was going to be in conjunction with the (Royal Canadian) Mint. We were so excited about it. We were putting on a historic fashion revue and that is one of our fundraising events. That got held over till Victoria Day next year."

The Costume Museum of Canada remains closed and had to cancel a planned Manitoba 150 event and a historic fashion revue. Above, Andrea Brown puts the finishing touches on a past exhibit, A Day in the Life 150 Years of Canadian Apparel. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Costume Museum of Canada remains closed and had to cancel a planned Manitoba 150 event and a historic fashion revue. Above, Andrea Brown puts the finishing touches on a past exhibit, A Day in the Life 150 Years of Canadian Apparel. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The museum is busiest from April to October, with two major citywide events, Doors Open Winnipeg in May and Nuit Blanche in September, providing its highest number of visitors. Doors Open has been postponed to Sept. 12 and 13; Nuit Blanche, an all-night celebration of the arts, remains scheduled for Sept. 26.

"We’re hoping to see what happens in September," Brown says. "Nuit Blanche, I honestly don’t know how that’s going to look. It often is a ton of people."

In the meantime, the museum has boosted its newsletter to its members, and volunteers have been itemizing the 36,000 pieces of its collection, some of which date back to the 1700s, in a digital database.

"People over the years have donated and we had a bit of a backlog and we’re getting caught up," says Brown, who expects masks, face shields and the ultra-casual work-from-home wardrobe of 2020 to eventually find a home in the collection. "To bring a piece in, it costs money. When we get a donation, we try to bring that home to the donor. There’s a cost of doing business with the donations."

Visitors must wear masks to enter the Winnipeg Railway Museum, located at Union Station. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

Visitors must wear masks to enter the Winnipeg Railway Museum, located at Union Station. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

The museum also has reached out to the Winnipeg Foundation, which in May launched COVID-19 stabilization grants available to nonprofit groups, which include many Winnipeg museums. It expects to divvy out more than $6 million through this fund.

"We’re very hopeful," Brown says. "When you’re worried about funding, that’s a big worry. If we get enough to cover our expenses for this year, we will be very grateful."

The Manitoba Children’s Museum, located at The Forks, is making preparations to reopen, but hasn’t set a date yet, says Lisa Dziedzic McDonald, the museum’s director of marketing and communications. Those preparations include key concepts that will likely become part of a museum exhibition looking back at 2020 — enhanced cleaning protocols, hand-sanitizer stations, physical distancing, smaller capacity and increased signage.

"Things will certainly be different than they were at the Children’s Museum pre-pandemic, but we expect they’ll be similar to what we’re seeing emerge elsewhere in our community as the ‘new normal’ in response to evolving public health guidelines and regulations," she says.

Times are also tough for museums that have been able to open. The Winnipeg Railway Museum is well suited to social-distancing guidelines because of its long outdoor platform, says Gord Leathers, the museum’s director of public relations.

The Winnipeg Railway Museum is well suited to social-distancing guidelines because of its long outdoor platform, says Gord Leathers, the museum’s director of public relations. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Winnipeg Railway Museum is well suited to social-distancing guidelines because of its long outdoor platform, says Gord Leathers, the museum’s director of public relations. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We’re on an old railway platform and the advantage there is we’re very well ventilated because it’s essentially open space," he says. "The disadvantage is that whatever the temperature is outside, the temperature is probably the same inside. If it’s the summer we’re the hottest ticket in town and if it’s the winter we’re the coolest indoor museum in the world."

The museum is part of Union Station at 123 Main St., and Leathers says since the station is part of Via Rail’s network, visitors must wear masks to enter the building, whether to catch a train or check out one of the museum’s historic iron horses.

"We have to wipe down grab-irons and anything that people can touch, and that means there’s an awful lot of things we have to wipe down," Leathers says. "We’re not letting people into locomotive cabs. We have a diesel which has been locked down... We’ve got some cars where you have to pass people on the way in and out, but you can observe six-foot spacing if you manoeuvre it properly."

While Winnipeg’s summer weather has been warm, ticket sales to visit the museum have been not so hot, he says. Manitobans have taken the main recommendation from health officials during the pandemic — to stay home — to heart. While the COVID-19 curve here has been flattened, so have attendance numbers at many of the city’s museums and galleries.

"I think what’s affected our attendance is people not coming out to anything and our numbers are way down," Leathers says.

Amber Hiebert sells a variety of wares and treats in the Mennonite Heritage Village’s General Store. (Shannon VanRaes / Winnipeg Free Press)

Amber Hiebert sells a variety of wares and treats in the Mennonite Heritage Village’s General Store. (Shannon VanRaes / Winnipeg Free Press)

Staff and board members at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach have also noticed fewer visitors since the village reopened on May 13. However, visitor ticket sales make up only a part of the 56-year-old village’s yearly budget, says Gary Dyck, the village’s executive director.

"Admissions are down quite a bit. We’re hoping to get 50 per cent of what we usually get, that’s our goal," Dyck says. "Let’s say for a mid-sized museum like we are, admission is only a quarter, if that, of revenue. Donations are actually slightly up year to year. Grants, they’re right are on par, nothing has changed there.

"We’re also making use of the wage subsidies from the federal government and some extra summer students that the Manitoba government has helped with. I feel we’re doing pretty good that way."

Admissions to the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach are at about 50 per cent of a normal year, says Gary Dyck, the village’s executive director. (Shanon VanRaes / Winnipeg Free Press)

Admissions to the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach are at about 50 per cent of a normal year, says Gary Dyck, the village’s executive director. (Shanon VanRaes / Winnipeg Free Press)

The number of visitors will certainly be missed over the August long weekend, when the village would normally become a focal point for Steinbach’s Pioneer Days. Like virtually all Manitoba events this summer, however, the four-day fair has been cancelled, owing to COVID-19. Instead, staff has adapted the turn-of-the-century Russian Mennonite street village and its windmill, housebarns, churches, blacksmith shop, general store and sodhouse to a 21st-century reality.

"What we’ve done this year is a series of mini-events every other Saturday, what we call Demonstration Days," Dyck says, adding its next event in scheduled for Saturday. "They’re not super-charged like they were before with Pioneer Days. Instead of thousands of people come, we’re having dozens or a couple hundred each weekend.

"It’s just a new mentality."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, July 14, 2020 at 6:30 PM CDT: Corrects name of Costume Museum of Canada's president from Ross to Brown.

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