One of the frequent signs placed on Homer’s annual Burning Basket reads “Prepare for opportunity disguised as loss.”
As a closure of the Pratt Museum caused by the COVID-19 pandemic extends from spring into summer, how the museum adapts could serve as an example of that saying. In mid-March as part of the state’s health mandate, institutions like libraries and museums had to close.
For the Pratt, that means a major loss in funding. It relies on admissions, especially in the busy summer tourist season, to keep paying its bills. It also means shutting down programs like its summer harbor tours.
“Being closed creates all kinds of problems for us,” said Pratt Executive Director Jennifer Gibbins. “We’re disconnected from our friends and supporters. We have no revenue coming in.”
Fortunately, the Pratt got grants under the Payroll Protection Program of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act. Those funds will pay staff salaries during the pandemic recovery.
Last Friday on the Pratt Museum lawn, Gibbins, curator Savanna Bradley and naturalist in residence Marilyn Sigman sat properly socially distant in red Adirondack chairs spaced 6-feet apart in an interview with the Homer News. Earlier this month, the Pratt announced Bradley, the former collections manager, had been promoted to curator. Sigman, the former executive director of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and interim museum director before Gibbins was hired last winter, also was named naturalist in residence.
Born and raised in Homer, Bradley has a master of science in arts management with a certificate in museum studies from the University of Oregon and a bachelor of arts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is an artist and naturalist.
Sigman is a retired University of Alaska faculty member and is the author of “Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay,” which won the 2020 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing. She has a master of science in wildlife management from UAF and worked as a biologist and wildlife educator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Her book began as her thesis project for the University of Alaska’s master of fine arts program in creative writing.
Gibbins said she acknowledges the serious health issues of the pandemic.
“We have two tiers of concerns,” she said. “The first one is for our staff and the second one is for the community as a whole.”
Though the phase two reopening of Alaska now allows museums to open at a limited capacity, and the phase 3 reopening announced this week will allow for a 100% opening, Gibbins said the museum is being cautious about reopening and has penciled in an opening date in July.
“We’re going to monitor the next 30 days very closely,” she said. “… We don’t want to be contributing to risk. It’s a tricky balancing act.”
While the pandemic has created problems for the Pratt, Gibbins said it also has forced the museum to shift its focus to a direction it planned on — more online programs, for example.
“It’s creating a really interesting opportunity to energize and engage the work we wanted to do anyway,” Gibbins said.
The Pratt had wanted to invest in its digital infrastructure before the pandemic. With support from nonprofits like the Rasmuson Foundation and the Homer Foundation, the Pratt has begun to move forward in its online presence. Bradley has begun doing weekly posts on the Pratt’s Facebook page about its collections and history.
“We’ll keep growing in that direction,” Gibbins said. “We needed to do that anyway in this social media, tech world. Now it’s more important than ever.”
In partnership with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, the Pratt also is refining its educational curriculum and moving more of that online.
“We’re hoping and we’re already making progress to strengthen our online presence and our skill set,” Gibbins said.
Last summer, the Pratt reopened after another closure — nine months of a shutdown while it remodeled the museum by redoing the front porch and making its multiple levels accessible under Americans with Disabilities Act standards. With interior work done, the museum can now shift its focus to improvements to what Gibbins called the museum’s campus. That includes two gems: the botanical gardens, a resource for learning about Kachemak Bay native plants, trees and shrubs, and its forest trail.
“This is again something we needed to do anyway,” Gibbins said. “… This is a great resource. It’s something they (the public) can enjoy in the context of COVID. They can go outside, they can walk on the trails. We’re putting more attention on that right now.”
The Patrons of the Pratt Society, a major benefactor and fundraising group to support the museum, also has applied for a grant to give to the museum to restore the gardens.
“There were lots of conversations about landscaping, but they really are exhibits,” Sigman said. “… As a visitor to Homer, what a wonderful thing to access this museum and this forest.”
Another opportunity disguised as loss is the cancellation of a traveling exhibit planned for July, “The Microbial World.” Because of the pandemic, that’s stuck in the Lower 48.
“That’s not a bad problem for us,” Gibbins said. “It created an opportunity now for Savanna as curator and Marilyn as naturalist in residence to create a new exhibit.”
Over the summer, Bradley and Sigman will develop an exhibit roughly titled “Shifting Baselines.”
“We’re exploring the ways we’re collecting are changing over time,” Bradley said.
Sigman said a lot of Homer people collect natural objects. Curators or volunteers at the museum have crafted their own collections, like Lee “The Boneman” Post’s effort to collect skeletons of Kachemak Bay mammals. The museum started with namesake Sam Pratt’s collection and continued with the professional efforts of people like previous curator Betsy Webb.
Bradley said when the Homer Society of Natural History started the museum, they had the idea that they wanted the collection to tell a narrative. Gibbins mentioned an Underwood typewriter in the Harrington Cabin — a historic cabin that’s an exhibit of Homer homestead days — owned by May Harrington. Harrington was a Homer postmistress who also worked at the harbor. On that typewriter Harrington wrote a lot of letters to officials asking for various amenities be brought to Homer, like a road.
Of visions like that, Bradley said pioneer Homer resident Wilma Williams once said, “We come to find these things came true.”
“What she (May Harrington) wrote on that typewriter came true,” Bradley said.
Another program coming up is the museum’s participation in the Change Network, a program started by Nina Simon, the former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Simon realized that museums needed to change how they interact with the public. Coming in the fall, the Pratt will be part of the program to help examine, explore and redefine how museums work with the public.
Gibbins said she recognizes the museum’s place in and interconnectivity with the Homer economy. When business is up, the museum thrives. When it’s down, the museum suffers.
“The economic challenges that covid has brought forward — they’re real,” she said. “… We’re trying to do the best we can to bridge the fallout of this. … We’re trying to position ourselves so we can be strong and healthy and affect our partners.”