As the Pratt Museum has shifted to the ever changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, its response can be seen as a bellwether for how nonprofit organizations have adapted to the challenges of keeping visitors and staff healthy while still offering programs.
The improving pandemic situation — more people vaccinated, a relaxing of COVID-19 safety rules and decreasing case numbers — means these changes at the Pratt:
• More outdoor activities, like Mary Epperson Day events on June 6;
• Monthly First Friday receptions, such as this month’s opening of “Finding Home in Homer,” an art show by youth who have experienced housing insecurity;
• A return of “Putting on the Ritz,” the gala museum fundraiser, to be held in July;
• The opening in June of “The Microbial World,” a show canceled in 2020, and
• Renovation of the Botanical Garden, first installed in the early 1980s.
Last March when many public facilities closed to the public, schools shut down and people started working remotely, the Pratt also shut its doors. It canceled “The Microbial World.” By mid-summer last year it had opened cautiously, with face masks required of visitors, shorter hours and limits to how many could be inside at a time. In October it started offering new exhibits, like a quilt show, “Shifting Tides: Convergence in Cloth,” and three current shows, “Familiar Faces,” “Finding Home in Homer” and “Alaska Positive — Juried Photograph Exhibition.”
In a milestone, for First Friday in April, the Pratt held a reception where people could see the shows and then mingle unmasked outdoors.
“That was what I would say was our first effort at a normal First Friday,” said Pratt Museum Director Jennifer Gibbins.
Gibbins and Communications Manager Holly Atkins held a phone interview to talk about upcoming summer events.
Holding events outdoors has been part of the Pratt’s ongoing effort during the pandemic to keep people engaged with the museum. Even when shut down, it put up Adirondack chairs on the lawn and its forested park behind the museum.
“What are we utilizing well and what are we underutilizing?” Gibbins said museum staff asked themselves. “The pandemic put the spotlight on the outdoors.”
That’s led to a shift in how the museum sees itself, Gibbins said.
“We’re going to start talking about not just the Pratt Museum, but the Pratt Museum and Park,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the community who know our property and utilize our trails, and there are an astonishing number of people who have no idea.”
That perspective helped make First Friday happen, Gibbins said.
“That’s where Holly and I started thinking, ‘Let’s use the outdoors,’” she said. “… How can we change our approach to First Friday?”
“It’s a real family oriented event,” Atkins said of the First Friday events. “It’s great to see kids out there playing outside.”
She said the pandemic has made families more important.
“We’ve learned a lot in the pandemic — this new normal we’re embracing,” Atkins said. “Throughout the pandemic we’re re-evaluating what we want to do with our lives. …We’re trying to take what we’ve learned in this pandemic and what people have expressed to us and create new experiences that really embrace what people need right now and what they’re valuing.”
Emerging from the pandemic is “not going to happen in and instant, for many reasons, including that we’re not completely through the pandemic,” Gibbins said. “If we can start making these incremental steps back to a new normal, that’s important for the museum and the community.”
A paid and volunteer labor shortage means the Pratt will stick to its schedule of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday to Saturday.
The museum’s facemask policy also won’t change, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Thursday advised that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear face masks indoors. Staff won’t be checking people to see if they’re fully vaccinated.
“No, it’s not possible to do that,” Gibbins said. “It’s a matter of privacy. It’s an issue of personal choice.”
Still, compared to last spring, Gibbins said she’s sensing a relaxed mood about the pandemic.
“We can tell already in the first few weeks of May people are feeling more comfortable coming to a museum and being out and being in spaces wit people,” she said. “The vaccine has made a big difference in people’s state of mind and their health.”