Smithsonian director on what it takes to reopen, transform during COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the Smithsonian Institution to think about how its museums and facilities in the D.C. area can be more effective and nimble in the 21st century when they reopen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the Smithsonian Institution to consider how its museums and facilities in the D.C. area can be more effective and nimble in the 21st century when they reopen.

Lonnie Bunch, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, told Tom Temin of WTOP’s sister station, Federal News Network, that one realization they have had during the pandemic is that more Americans are comfortable getting their information digitally. This has allowed the Smithsonian to accelerate its digital work.

“We’ve created portals that are allowing people to get into our educational materials so they can have the materials about teaching, science, art or history,” Bunch said, with the message being that although the buildings are closed, the Smithsonian is not.

There has been a significant growth in downloads of education materials, Bunch said, and one of the Smithsonian’s recent initiatives has been to move to open access over the spring and summer.

Some 3,000 images and materials have been made available online.

Bunch said the Smithsonian is seizing the current situation to transform itself and what it might look like when the Smithsonian reopens.

“A lot of our attention was focused on those kinds of protocols and asking ourselves fundamental questions about how we should be, how the Smithsonian can be a more effective, more 21st- century organization,” Bunch said.

Currently, the National Zoo in D.C. and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, are the only Smithsonian institutions open to the public. Visitors need timed-entry passes to get into those two facilities, but those are available for free online.

Bunch said that when all other buildings reopen, tickets would be a way to keep crowds to manageable sizes.

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, of which Bunch used to be director, timed-entry passes were used because of its popularity with visitors.

The Smithsonian is also thinking about what triggers would allow for reopening, such as scientific data, and what it would take to reopen.

“How do we do new cleaning protocols? How do we social distance in a museum?” Bunch said.

And — more on the bigger-picture side of things — how to create community during a pandemic.

Another thing Bunch said the institution is contending with is the financial impact the pandemic has brought.

Although the Smithsonian benefits from having strong federal support, Bunch said millions of dollars were lost because of the closures. This came from revenue losses in places like Smithsonian gift shops and restaurants.

“That money is crucially important because it allows us to hire staff, to do research,” Bunch said. “In many ways our challenge is to rethink how do we create different revenue models once we reopen,” and to rethink how to do more e-commerce.

Bunch was elected secretary of the Smithsonian in May 2019 and had been in the role just shy of a year when the coronavirus pandemic started making a significant impact in the D.C. area.

“No one wants to lead during a pandemic,” Bunch said, but, he said, what has been wonderful is  the powerful ways the Smithsonian has come together.

“In many ways, this has been a horrible crisis. In other ways, it’s been an opportunity to really move the Smithsonian forward in its goal to be a more nimble, 21st-century institution. Would I have liked to have an easier time? Absolutely. But as we used to say in my neighborhood, you deal the cards that are dealt you.”

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