Lessons We Learned from the Pandemic

Ann Craig

Director of Exhibits and Public Programs
Museum of Natural and Cultural History

The museum has missed you—our visitors, volunteers, collaborators, members, and supporters. We’ve missed offering you one of the best seasons of exhibits and programs we’ve ever planned, including discussion panels featuring local civil rights leaders, a summer of field excursions, and a bilingual exhibit to accompany the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field. As with museums across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly every plan we had for 2020. But it also revealed some silver linings that are lighting our way toward a more inclusive future.

Lesson 1: We can serve a bigger audience. Early on in the pandemic, we asked ourselves what we could provide that would separate us from the pack of online museum offerings. We wondered why anyone would visit our website when they could tour online exhibits or attend virtual programs from the Smithsonian Institution, the Grand Egyptian Museum, or New Zealand’s Te Papa. The answer, we wagered, isn’t one object or specialty or attraction. Instead, it’s us—the unique blend of ingredients that makes the MNCH the MNCH. So we put our programs online, put our family activity kits in the mail, and translated an award-winning exhibit into a digital experience. And then we crossed our fingers.

The result? People showed up in our new, digital spaces—lots of people, from lots of different places—to explore and celebrate our collective heritage.

Prior to COVID, one way we measured our success was by counting the number of people who walked through our doors. From classes on exhibit tours to people gathering for a presentation, we strove to serve as many visitors as possible. But geography and room size placed limits on that service—limits we didn’t fully recognize before the pandemic. As we pivoted to the digital world, we suddenly began serving people throughout Oregon, across the country, and around the world.

We’ve shipped out thousands of Museum Connection Kits featuring science and culture activities families can enjoy at home.

We’ve shipped out thousands of Museum Connection Kits featuring science and culture activities families can enjoy at home.

A virtual presentation on sports analytics in May drew audience members from Oregon, California, Texas, and New York. In December, MNCH Executive Director Jon Erlandson gave a talk on marine historical ecology before an international audience, hosted online by Spain’s Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Closer to home, we’ve delivered thousands of activity kits through our partnerships with Lane Education Service District and libraries around the state, getting hands-on experiments, games, and crafts to families looking to learn and connect without a screen. In short, we’ve served our most loyal audience and we’ve made a lot of new friends.

Lesson 2: History, science, and culture programs are essential services. At the start of the COVID shutdown in March, we figured that people wouldn’t be interested in visiting museums for a long, long time. It seemed like a luxury activity—something we could all live without during a pandemic—and not an essential service. But as the Black Lives Matter and Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) movements swelled across the globe, as questions circled about how human impacts on the environment may have contributed to the pandemic, and as fire devastated our beloved Oregon landscapes, we felt compelled to open our exhibits because their content ties directly to these pressing issues. As protocols adjusted and the state permitted museums to open, our visitor experience and exhibits teams masked up, implemented stringent health and safety measures, and went back to work onsite so that the community could access the critical stories told in our exhibits. From August 7 through November 14, we served hundreds of masked museum visitors in small, distanced groups who were looking to learn about Oregon’s landscapes, cultures, and justice movements. We have served many more through online and virtual programs that invite Oregonians around the state to stay connected and stay curious during this challenging time.

Our fist fully digital exhibit launched in fall 2020.

Our fist fully digital exhibit launched in fall 2020.

Lesson 3: We are flexible and resilient. Here at the museum, the COVID shutdowns showed us what we’re made of. They challenged our team of careful, long-term planners to adjust our collective approach and think in terms of days and weeks rather than months and years. They further challenged us to quickly master new digital platforms and new ways of measuring our success. Not every move we’ve made has been perfect, but the museum and our public programs team has grown smarter and more resilient than we were a year ago—and we’ve learned firsthand the value that flexibility and a sense of adventure can bring when navigating uncharted territory.  As the new year gets underway, we continue to envision bold new directions we wouldn’t have imagined just a few months ago. Thank you for continuing on this journey with us, for accepting our trials and our missteps, and for encouraging us to keep taking risks. We are so happy you’re here, connected with us.


Portland-based hip hop MC and spoken word artist Mic Crenshaw

Oregon Folklife Network

Amplifying heritage arts through our annual Culture Fest partnerships. 

Read more.

LaRhonda Steele sings traditional gospel music

Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program

Six awardees will teach their living traditions in 2021.  

Read more.

Eight smiling faces in a Zoom meeting

Connecting with our Volunteers

Virtual meetups are fertile ground for learning, laughter, and more.

Read more.

Eight smiling faces in a Zoom meeting

Staying the Course

Museum Advisory Council helps navigate challenging waters. 

Read more.



Mammoth sculpture in the museum courtyard

Resilience, Sustainability,
and Connection


Volunteers and staff in collections

Connecting through Collections


A museum archaeologist sifting through sediment at a field site in south-central Oregon

Protecting and Preserving Oregon Heritage


MNCH volunteer Barry Hughes pulls open a drawer of fossils in the Condon Collection

Adapting to Change