Wisconsin Museums Closing Indefinitely Due To Rapid COVID-19 Spread

Staff Hopeful To Reopen In 2021

File photo of Discovery World in Milwaukee.
File photo of Discovery World in Milwaukee. Timothy Vollmer (CC-BY)

A growing number of museums across Wisconsin are closing indefinitely as the number of COVID-19 positive cases and hospitalizations skyrockets.

On Friday, the Milwaukee science museum Discovery World announced it was closing immediately.

“The museum will temporarily close for the remainder of the year with the intent to reopen in 2021,” said a museum blog post.

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This is the second time Discovery World has closed this year due to COVID-19. In March, the museum ceased in-person operations and didn’t reopen until July.

President and CEO Bryan Wunar told WPR the current closure is due, in part, to a public health order issued by City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Marlaina Jackson on Oct. 26.

“In this new order, all places of amusement are limited to having 10 people on site at any one time, and that’s a level that we can’t accommodate. There isn’t a way for us to do that,” said Wunar.

Prior to the order, Wunar said Discovery World had been limiting capacity to no more than 250 people at a time. Other safety protocols at the museum included moving ticket sales online, making time slots for visitors, decommissioning high-touch exhibits and using motion sensors to activate exhibits.

Discussions with the health department throughout the pandemic have been positive, said Wunar. He said the museum could have tried to get an exemption to allow it to remain open but “they aren’t in a position right now to offer any additional exemptions.”

“And we thought it was appropriate for us to abide by that at this point,” Wunar said.

The financial impact for the closure of Discovery World is significant, said Wunar, since much of the organization’s revenue comes from tickets, parking and its gift shop.

Wunar said when he started as president in July 2019, Discovery World had 128 employees. That number is down to 36 now.

Wunar said the museum will continue offering virtual programming for schools and kids learning at home while physical operations are halted.

Also on Friday, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee announced it was closing immediately until “at least Jan. 3, 2021,” according to a post on the museum’s website.

After assessing the City of Milwaukee Order 4.2 and the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the H-D Museum has made this decision in an effort to help keep guests and staff safe. The H-D Museum team will closely monitor the situation to determine a reopening date in 2021,” the post said.

Representatives of the Harley-Davidson Museum did not respond to requests for comment.

The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau has decided to remain closed indefinitely due to COVID-19 pandemic, said director Kathy Kelsey Foley. The museum closed its doors Oct. 8.

“I love that people want to come to museums,” said Kelsey Foley. “Right now they need to help control this virus by staying home and only tending to essential, outside activities, and I’d love to be able to make a case for museum visiting being essential. I’ll do that after the pandemic.”

Kelsey Foley said she and her staff will review the local COVID-19 positive rate, hospitalizations and the health of frontline workers when deciding the best time to reopen. The Woodson Art Museum is also continuing online offerings for the community, said Kelsey Foley.

“And we’ve done something really fabulous called a ‘Stop-by Studio’ on our campus,” said Kelsey Foley.

She said it’s similar to the popular “Little Free Library” in that residents can pick up art kits from an outdoor kiosk.

As for finances, Kelsey Foley said the museum doesn’t charge for admission because of ongoing memberships. She said members have been generous throughout the pandemic.

The Madison Children’s Museum has been closed since March 13, said marketing director Jonathan Zarov, and staff don’t know when the facility will reopen.

“And we just can’t in good conscience open at this point, we can’t contribute towards anybody getting sick,” said Zarov. “And also, honestly, we don’t feel like our audience would come in very large numbers. We have grandparents and parents (who) are very protective of their kids.”

Zarov said even if the children’s museum could reopen, others that have are seeing significantly decreased attendance.

The Madison Children’s Museum is working virtually through its “MCM At Home” initiative that provides educational and music programming along with arts and crafts projects for families at home. Zarov said while the building remains closed, staff are working to find new ways to help children learn through play.

“And that need doesn’t go away just because of the pandemic,” said Zarov. “In fact, it’s increased. Kids need that more now more than ever. So we started thinking about what we could do with these in these very limited circumstances to provide that.”

The extended closure of the Madison Children’s Museum has come with tough financial realities, said Zarnov. There are currently 19 staff employed, which is down around 80 percent since March.

Currently, the Madison Children’s Museum is working toward a fundraising goal of $4 million by June 30, 2020, with its “Our Future In Play” initiative. Zarov said the funding will be used toward the creation of a 10,000 square foot play space in what was a former parking garage.