When Joan Deacon closed the Schifferstadt Architectural Museum in Baker Park for the winter season in 2019, she never imagined the museum would still be closed into the first months of 2021.
Now, the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation, which owns and manages Schifferstadt, is navigating the pandemic without the majority of its funding and without its mainstay in the community. This can only cause more stress on a small nonprofit, which Beacon, the president, said is largely “hand-to-mouth.”
“We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have a large safety net, so to speak,” she said. “We take [our funds] in, and we pay them out.”
It’s a problem museums and historical societies around the county are facing during the pandemic, especially when revenue relies largely on fundraisers.
The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society had to move both of its main events, the Maryland Iron Festival and the Traditional Village Christmas, online this year.
Elizabeth Comer, secretary for the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, said it’s difficult to plan for anything since it’s unclear how quickly COVID-19 vaccinations will be rolled out.
Deacon feels similarly, which makes planning fundraisers that would usually happen in the spring and summer even more challenging.
“I’m hopeful, but it’s just such difficult business to try to plan anything now because these things, you don’t just throw them together at the last minute like a pizza party,” Deacon said. The Landmarks Foundation hopes it can hold its annual Barnstormers and Octoberfest fundraisers this year.
Without the help of fundraisers, both organizations turned to grants from state and local agencies to help make ends meet. They weren’t eligible for larger loans or grants like the Paycheck Protection Program since they’re all volunteer-based, but they said there were a decent amount of grants available to them.
“We got two grants last year, and we also got two generous donations, and that’s what is keeping us going,” Deacon said. “... We’re squeaking by.”
Admission-based museums also lost their main stream of revenue during the pandemic.
Ellen Przybocki, owner of the Original Playhouse Children’s Museum in New Market, has helped supplement her revenue with a learning pod held at the museum, which she hopes to keep going until Frederick County Public Schools returns to full in-school instruction.
“I really miss having the playhouse operating how I had designed and intended it to be, but there’s been a lot of support and encouragement from everyone,” she said.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine on Patrick Street has been closed to the general public since before the holidays due to the lack of attendance and the staggering increase in COVID-19 cases locally and nationally. The museum is still offering admission by appointment, however.
To help make up the difference, Executive Director David Price said he essentially turned into the museum’s chief financial officer for months, seeking out every grant and loan he could get his hands on, including the PPP and local grants.
“That’s probably how I spent about 90 percent of my time,” he said. “But it was worth it.”
Thankfully, a grant for admissions-based nonprofits such as zoos and museums was released by Maryland in November. Additionally, in place of an end-of-year fundraiser for a specific project, Price asked museum members to help donate a total of $25,000 to make up the year’s losses. He’s thankful for the generosity of the community and the state, but he agreed the uncertainty of 2020 was the most frustrating part.
“You hear these proposals, and then Congress and the powers that be argue for months and waste all that time,” he said. “And in the meantime, the money’s running out, and there’s no certainty, no plan, and you can’t plan for the future.”
Meanwhile, the museum was able to shift into more digital offerings, especially while they were completely closed in the spring. The Brunswick Heritage Museum also used the pandemic as an opportunity to take its museum online, said president James Castle.
“I did my best to actually learn of what other museums were doing,” Castle said. “... We’ve had camera equipment at the museum, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we put this stuff to use?’”
After reopening in September, Castle said there are many days when the museum got uncomfortably full. He and his group of 10 volunteers — down from 30 when the pandemic began — made sure to enforce capacity limits and clean more frequently.
Still, closing the museum at the end of the year for its offseason was a bit of a relief. Castle didn’t want to spread the virus at the museum or have to turn people away.
That’s something that both the Landmarks Foundation and the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society are worried about, considering their museums are so small.
Comer said opening the society’s log house to the public would be near impossible with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
The historical society is also working on building The Museum of the Ironworker, which was set to open this year. But lags in supply chains have set progress back, Comer said, and she doesn’t think it would be wise to open something so small now, anyway. Luckily, as an all-volunteer association, she feels certain that the society will be able to make it to the day they can open the museum.
“It’s not fun, but we’re going to be fine,” Comer said. “I just hope that when it’s safe, people come out and support these museums and historical societies.”