Call one of the nine museums in the Mission Valley Museum consortium and you’ll likely speak to the founder or a family member involved with the museum. Visit one of these museums and bonds with our local community develop as the artifacts come to life through the stories told by the exhibits.
Small museums in rural areas struggled during COVID-19, with many museums closing their doors indefinitely. Within the Mission Valley museum community, that story is near, with local museums still recovering from what the pandemic has taken away – visitors and the opportunity to create a new story with each person walking through their doors.
The onset of the global pandemic in March 2020 presented a wave of disruption, driven by the immediate impact of the lack of travel and walk-in visitors, which for many small establishments, especially small rural museums , is their financial engine. The impact of travel bans, major event cancellations and extended closures created a ripple effect that required new sources of assistance to meet new challenges.
Gil and Helen Mangels at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson summed up their reality accurately, noting that “Canada has closed the border, and we haven’t seen more than half of the visitors like we did the year. former. This created a five-figure loss.
At the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana on Highway 93 east of Charlo, Jo Cheff, executive director and daughter of founder Bud Cheff Jr., said they had to close the Ninepipes Museum for extended periods to ensure that their team of volunteers stay safe and healthy.
âToday we are still struggling to return to the levels of volunteerism that we have always maintained,â said Cheff. âLike many institutions, COVID has cost us our annual fundraiser two years in a row and substantial walk-in traffic that drives our gift shop sales. We have yet to bounce back to where we were before COVID. “
Ronan’s Garden of the Rockies Museum, represented by Patti Mocabee and Janette Myers, is run entirely by volunteers and donations. They also struggled to stay open during their season from June to the end of August. The impact of COVID’s reduction in visitor numbers also means critical repair work is delayed, creating a cascade of issues and shifting priorities, as all museums in the group experience.
The Polson Flathead Lake Museum in Polson is closed until 2022, with priorities now shifting to fundraising to fix a leaky roof, sidewalk additions and other infrastructure projects to enhance the museum experience and visitor safety. At the consortium meeting, Executive Director Karen Dunwell commented, âThe work of running our museum has not stopped, even though COVID has shut down many of our activities,â a sentiment shared by many members.
Sister Margaret of the Church and Mission Museum of Saint Ignatius explained that COVID-19 had a direct impact on visitor donations and gift shop sales, presenting new financial challenges for the church and the museum. However, she said, there was an unexpected silver lining. Currently, the church is completing the renovation of the murals, which requires significant scaffolding inside the church, which has an impact on the seating of the congregation, access to the sanctuary and services.
âWhen COVID stopped travel, the headache we had of combining services and scaffolding allowed us to broadcast live services to our parishioners as the restoration work continued safely,â Sister said. Margaret.
The People’s Center Tribal Museum and Gift Shop faced even more problems after the catastrophic fire of September 2020 that resulted in a move to St. Ignatius and reopening as the Cultural Center of the Three Chiefs.
The consortium includes three other members: the Arlee and Jocko Valley Museum, and two just north of St. Ignatius – Four Winds Trading Post, a business run by Preston Miller and his wife, Carolyn Corey; and the Fort Connah Historic Site.
Fort Connah is only open to the public by appointment Friday through Monday, April through October, and a full week the first week of May and the second week of September. Yet even with this limited public access schedule, they reported that COVID-19 still had an impact on operations as appointments to visit dried up, along with typical requests for other interests.
The group agreed at the consortium meeting that the pandemic is creating enormous financial pressure while creating new needs and, if optimistically, new opportunities. At the state level, Montana and various funding agencies stepped in when annual revenue streams dried up, which is a new situation now that the US relief plan offers opportunities. However, not all consortium members have the resources to write grants or apply for funding, and in many cases navigating digital processes can be overwhelming. If one issue has come out of the COVID-19 experience, it’s how addicted everyone has become to the digital world with the websites, social media and digital channels that support museums – traveler reviews.
Members present at the meeting agreed to research available grants, either as a consortium or individually. The Museum World is supported by the Montana History Foundation, the Montana Department of Commerce for Tourism, the Greater Polson Community Foundation, Humanities Montana, and the National Endowment for Humanities, alongside donors and supporters of each museum. Although the applications are competitive, the financial support has made it possible to relaunch the programs and to re-program the typical activities of the museum.
In late August, despite the nearby forest fires and the heat and smoke filling the valley, tourists returned and visited the museums. As schools return to their classrooms, it is hoped that with security measures school visits to museums will resume, as will walk-in visitors during fall days. It is still too early to know if the number of walk-in people has evolved into pre-pandemic numbers or if school visits will return. There is a promise as familiar conversations return, such as, âWhere are you from? “And” When was the last time you visited us? “
The pandemic itself, and the emotions and changes it brought about, is now part of the story museums will tell. Now when local artists are featured or musicians play at the museum, a new story is told as they have also been affected by the pandemic. Their business has been affected in the same way as museums, with reservations and revenues starting to reappear.
Visit missionvalleymuseums.org for information and links to all the member museums of the consortium, each of which depends on visitors, sharing stories between exhibits, people and stories.