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Children’s Discovery Museum Recruiting Staff Ahead Of Possible May Reopening

Staff / WGLT
The 17th annual "Doctors in Concert" will be held virtually on April 17 at 6 p.m. Doctors will perform classical and contemporary melodies on piano, violin, cello and guitar.

The Children's Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal is tentatively planning to reopen May 1, but there are a lot of moving parts for its staff to consider.

Executive Director Beth Whisman said staffing and building preparation are among the factors, but through surveys and outreach, the museum is looking to its members and the public for what to do in the coming months.

“Well, if you look at most of the small businesses that were shuttered for long periods, it takes a while to get things back online. We've been closed for over a year now. Even with the activities we were able to do outside the building, the building itself is in need of preparation,” said Whisman. 

A new wave of COVID-19 cases is going to play a role in members’ comfort levels, added Whisman. Museum staff is confident in their protocols and are following what the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and CDC have required and asked for, she said.

“If we see a curve, even if it's not our decision on how to press pause again, the people who are coming to visit us are really the ones who are making that decision themselves. Families have demonstrated to us through surveys we've been doing and conversations we've been having with our users. They are the ones who are helping us set the pace,” said Whisman. 

The museum lost 90% of its staff in the past year and is in the middle of recruiting new staff, which Whisman said is not easy.

“It's taking time to get ready. We know our plan and we have our protocols in place. We know what we want to do to be able to reopen, but there are still some realities of making it happen that are going to take real time,” said Whisman. 

She said the museum is going to have to open slowly, and doesn't anticipate crowds of people because that level of comfort is just not there yet.

Whisman said the museum has to navigate operations to ensure it doesn't lose money every day it is open. 

“So we are going to start slowly with likely operating days Thursday through Sunday,” she said.

Whisman said there’s no benefit to reopening too early since they’ve been closed for a year, and risking it just wouldn't be wise. 

“We're in a rush to reopen in a sense that we want to be able to serve our community. We want to be able to serve our member families, who have been waiting to use those memberships, but we're not going to reopen so quickly that we're not paying attention to that data, that we're not prepared for staffing and for protocols,” said Whisman.

Museums in a critical place

Whissman said some smaller museums may choose to stay closed to save money, especially with small crowds and public health limits in place. The Children’s Discovery Museum isn’t in that position. However, Whisman said she hopes people realize museums are in a critical place. 

“We have not really been able to receive the direct federal relief funding that many other organizations have ... both small businesses and nonprofit businesses,” said Whisman. “I really hope they'll consider that museums are in a special situation and we need the community's support.”

Whisman said most of the museums, especially small ones, are going to probably have to go into some kind of debt to be able to reopen successfully because they don't have the money coming in that other sectors of the economy have seen.

“If you look at children's museums across the state of Illinois, as we're slowly starting to be able to reopen, you don't see any of them opening right now. They're not. They're not rushing to do so because they've lost so much money in the last year,” said Whisman. 

The CDM in Normal is unique because it’s part of the Town of Normal, so Whisman said it's not exactly in the same boat.

The new federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program includes more than $16 billion in grants for shuttered venues, to be administered by SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

However, Whisman said the way it was written, most medium and small museums are not going to receive any of that $16 billion.

“At the federal level, the way the funding works for museums, both public and private, it is chartered through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). That charter allows direct operational funding for libraries. There's quite a bit of money going to libraries across the country. Museums are not allowed to receive funding for operations. They're only allowed to receive funding for programming,” said Whisman. 

Whisman said that most private museums that get funds for programming can’t even use it because they’ve been closed and operating costs are too high.

“It's not the type of relief small businesses are seeing. It's not the type of relief that other financial centers are seeing, families are seeing. I think it's revealed a weakness that is the infrastructure for museums nationwide,” said Whisman.

Whisman said the CDM will host avirtual fundraiser, the 17th annual Doctors in Concert, on April 17.

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