Like all businesses and institutions, historic homes and museums have been hit by the coronavirus, closing their doors to what would have been thousands of springtime visitors.
At spots such as Ferry Farm, Kenmore, Belmont, Montpelier and Stratford Hall, the lost revenue from ticket sales, festivals and fundraising events is hitting the historic homes and museums squarely in the bottom line.
But like those in other sectors, creative folks at these homes where George Washington, the Lees of Virginia, Gari Melchers, James and Dolley Madison and others once lived have quickly pivoted in an attempt to stay connected and relevant to their audiences.
At one, James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County, staffers have come up with a new way to connect with those who appreciate history, and raise money doing it.
It’s called “Unlocking Montpelier,” an initiative that invites followers to “unlock” the house, square foot by square foot, by making a $10 donation for each.
When any participant “unlocks” a very real section of the Madison’ manor, Montpelier’s website will reveal videos, images and other special content from experts who take care of, study, research and interpret the house daily.
Elizabeth Chew, chief curator at the sprawling Orange County estate, said when the institution closed its doors to visitors March 13, “We immediately began thinking about ways to keep our visitors and audiences and donors engaged.”
Montpelier isn’t alone in that, as most historic attractions are reaching out to their respective audiences with everything from virtual tours to history-focused worksheets for youngsters. Gari Melchers’ Belmont is even offering online puzzles of the artist’s works and lesson plans for young artists.
What’s different about the Montpelier effort is the fundraising component. And while it only takes one person’s $10 to “unlock” a small part of the house and make the content available to everyone, there’s nothing to say that those so inclined can’t donate more.
“The other day, we had one visitor donate $10 to unlock a square, and the next gave $5,000,” said Cara Sisson, Montpelier’s chief advancement officer.
She added, “It’s a neat thing for families to feel like they are part of something. There are a lot of organizations that need help right now, but if your community has an interest in history and/or preservation, this is a neat way to support the effort.”
Chew and Sisson said the creation of the new content has been an effort that has involved archeologists, historians, curators who know about decorative arts, the folks who take care of collections and architectural historians. Working as a team, they’ve pushed to share the collective knowledge they have about the Madisons and their home.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What are the interesting stories about each spot? What are some unexpected story lines?” she said.
One of those is how archeology done on the site helps interpretation there. Like knowing what sort of ceramics the family would have eaten from by finding and digging down into a trash pit where garbage and pieces of broken ceramics would have been thrown.
“Or like how the discovery of a rat’s nest behind one of the walls in the mansion became a neat detective story,” she said, “as pieces of floor coverings and even newspaper clippings pulled from that nest provided clues about the house and the time.”
Chew noted that, as is happening at many historic homes, virtual tours are also being sent out via social media and through Montpelier’s website.
At Stratford Hall, many of those are created and conducted by Kelly Childress, manager of interpretation, in 18th-century dress. They’re called “Tuesday Hashtag Tours” and they hop all over the house and grounds of the Westmoreland County estate.
Anne Wilson, communications director there, said the site has also focused on making available content that families who are home-schooling during the coronavirus outbreak can use for educational purposes, something that the folks at Ferry Farm and Kenmore have targeted, as well.
Bill Garner, president of the George Washington Foundation that operates those two institutions, said that was a decision that tracks historically.
“The Washington family played a key role during the Revolutionary War helping those in need,” said Garner, adding that the branches of the family at Washington’s boyhood home and that of Betty Washington Lewis at Kenmore “helped provide supplies for relief to people in Boston and to the Revolutionary War.”
Garner echoed leaders at the other historic homes in saying how much the staff and institution misses seeing the faces of “schoolchildren that would be coming for tours on so many mornings.” He and others said the missed revenue will make budgets tight and force each of the historic attractions to face tough challenges and choices going forward.
Garner noted that while the coronavirus shut-down is hitting everyone, it came at a particularly inopportune time at Ferry Farm, where visitation was ramping back up after years of construction and changes to the grounds. And the shutdown happened just days after the completion of the new exit off State Route 3 that does away with the need for some visitors to take a U-turn to reach the campus.
Garner said the lack of visitors is letting Ferry Farm do some physical improvements to pathways, infrastructure and planning for two new outbuildings adjacent to the recently added Washington home site.
“It’s a safer way to do these things now when we’re closed, so guests aren’t engaged by heavy equipment,” he said.
John Bacon, chief executive at Stratford Hall, said similar projects are happening there, as well, with new roofs put on the visitor center and museum, as well as new plantings and work done on parking lots.
He acknowledged that it’s a tough hit to miss out on ticket sales, purchases in visitor center shopping areas and revenue that would have come from festivals and popular spring events.
But he noted, as did officials at most of the other historic sites, that those paying attention may well learn something from this challenging time.
“It’s possible that the nature of the experience that Stratford offers in the future will be different from the way we’ve operated in the past, to deal with this new reality,” he said, noting that people may be wary for years at the idea of large-scale, indoor events.
He said Stratford, and many other institutions like it, are fortunate to have wide-open spaces that visitors may find more comfortable in post-virus times.
“And we also run a lot of educational-oriented events, which tend to draw a smaller, self-selecting audience,” he said, noting that staffers are also realizing that connecting with supporters and communities online dovetails nicely for folks who eventually do visit in person.
“It doesn’t have to be either/or,” he said. “Having those who follow us see content before and after a visit can be a nice complement to actually coming in person.”