Amidst a Pandemic, the NHMU Goes Virtual


(Inside the Natural History Museum of Utah | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Kayleigh Silverstein, Special Projects Managing Editor, News Writer


While Salt Lake City and Utah, in general, have not seen a devastating spread of COVID-19 compared to the rest of the country, local businesses and cultural centers like museums continue to be impacted by the virus. Institutions whose spaces are integral to their missions have had to share their visions in a new gallery space: the computer screen.

Since closing its doors to the public in mid-March, the Natural History Museum of Utah has had to create new ways to engage with a community that can no longer be in the physical space of the museum. Thus, they have designed various online programs to facilitate their mission of illuminating the natural world and the place of humans within it.

Institutions such as the NHMU, though, have to figure out the best way to stick with their mission statement while also ensuring the protection of their employees.

Jason Cryan, executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah, said they made a commitment to keep staff on payroll for as long as possible, but the effort lasted for about six weeks when the scope and prognosis of the pandemic became known to the university and the museum specifically.

“And we then had to kind of reassess and project our losses and fiscal challenges that we would be facing. We had to make the difficult choice to put some short work breaks and furloughs,” Cryan said. 

While the NHMU and its staff are dealing with the negative impacts of the pandemic, they are trying various initiatives to continue the community engagement aspect of their museum.

The good news, though, is that we have pivoted a lot of our thinking. We’ve repurposed some existing programs to be kind of new and exciting online educational offerings, and we’ve instituted some new ones. We’ve taken an iterative approach to offer some really innovative and — by our sta45tistics and feedback — very valuable to the education resources online,” Cryan said.

Research Quest is an interactive program that is designed for kids to solve real world research problems. Due to the pandemic, the NHMU has adapted this program to be a remote mode of learning.

“It’s a virtual classroom setting with professional educators so that the students who have participated really get that almost one-on-one ability to ask questions and interact with experts,” Cryan said. 

Along with Research Quest, the NHMU has created virtual tours for student groups or others who would have scheduled a tour in the museum. These tours are designed to provide in-depth explanations of exhibitions within the museum.

“Those field trips basically are explanations at certain points within our physical galleries, with experts from our staff, explaining the major lessons from those sites. And then those virtual field trips are accompanied by a curriculum that the teachers can use to expand those experiences, students as well,” Cryan said.

While the online format of NHMU programs has been successful worldwide, the museum is still making efforts to open up its doors when the time is right.

“As a museum that is a community resource, our goal is always to be able to welcome the public to be able to experience and observe our different collections and science and research firsthand. There’s a lot of our operation that requires on-site management and maintenance,” said Abby Curran, the chief operating officer of the NHMU.

The NHMU is working to protect its staff while also ensuring proper maintenance of the museum’s exhibitions. 

“We’re following the state health department guidance, the University of Utah’s health department guidance, and making sure that we’re able to continue to meet the mission of the museum to illuminate the natural world and the place of humans within it. Wherever those humans maybe,” Curran said.

[email protected]