(This article intentionally contains a lot of links. Please click the links and enjoy seeing what Schiele employees have been creating during the pandemic.)
It’s midnight at Candice Jordan’s house. Everything is finally quiet. Her husband and her two kids under the age of 3 are sleeping. Jordan, the planetarium administrator for the Schiele Museum, sneaks into a closet with her smartphone and records a 27-second video in which she describes the size of hurricane eyes. She’s energetic and the filters she uses are funny. You’d never know that particular Weather Wednesday segment was shot in the dark of night – in a closet – during a work-from-home pandemic.
When the Schiele Museum closed to the public on March 16 because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, educators at the mostly hands-on museum were faced with a challenge. “Usually, we think of education in terms of live programs and classes,” says Tony Paysour, the museum’s head of interpretation. “The museum is a place where you see collections and exhibits, not images on a screen.”
Without the option of educating in person, the museum staff began using technology to teach and engage virtually. The educators came up with a combination of live and pre-recorded programs accessible online and on request. “We, as an institution, cover a large range of topics,” says Schiele program specialist Hannah Salemi. “We decided that our online and virtual presence should do the same thing.”
One of the most popular virtual programs features the Schiele’s live animals. Creature Feature can be seen live on Facebook, with a different “animal ambassador” from the museum each week. “We allow for live participation from our virtual audience, and people really like that!” Salemi says.
Creature Feature has put the spotlight on Teddy the hedgehog, Obie the Eastern kingsnake, Hazel the opossum, Bob the turtle, Smaug the American alligator, and goats with names like Blackbeard and BLT. Educator Keeley Zimmerman explains what the animals eat, how big or small they are, even why visitors should not feed gummy bears to goats. As part of the fun, Schiele fans got to vote on the alligator’s name and chose Smaug after the dragon in The Hobbit.
Dome @ Home
Because audiences can’t enjoy live shows in the planetarium, museum employees are giving people the next-best thing. “Dome at Home allows you to see planetarium shows from home on your computer or other smart device,” Jordan says. The museum created four shows, each more than 20 minutes long, with titles like, “The Zula Patrol: Under the Weather,” “Faster than Light” and “Solar Superstorms.” All shows can be seen for free after signing up to receive the links.
Also involving space, Jordan interviewed astrophysicist Dr. Jennifer Wiseman with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. That interview was done April 24, during the pandemic.
The Schiele started doing Weather Wednesdays late last year. The quick videos explore weather-related topics in a fun, easy-to-understand way. The weekly videos continue during the days of COVID-19, but now Jordan shoots them at home rather than at work. In two recent segments, she explained what hurricanes have in common with hot coffee and she used a googly-eye filter to help illustrate the size of hurricane eyes.
Virtual Bug Week
Late May usually means the ever-popular Bug Day at the Schiele, with hands-on exhibits and bug-eating demonstrations. This year, it became Virtual Bug Week, crawling onto users’ screens via YouTube, Facebook Live and Instagram. The Madagascar Hissing Cockroach presentation drew a lot of questions on Facebook Live. And the Schiele offered Bug Week worksheets for kids on its website.
Schiele to Go
Outreach coordinator MC Douglas and Salemi teamed up to create three programs to be sent to schools and small groups. The Schiele to Go topics are paleontology, geology and American Indian historical and cultural studies. The packets combine online instruction and hands-on activities.
The Schiele’s website also offers free video tours, a feature about the baby dinosaur exhibit Tiny Titans, plant experiments, a visit to the Farm exhibit’s goats, and more. Museum employees videotaped these segments to highlight local flora and fauna, exhibits at the museum, the live animals, and the planetarium.
For educators accustomed to live interactions with groups of people, creating videos has been a fun challenge. “I feel like it’s made me more creative and resourceful since I don’t have my regular store of props and items on hand,” Jordan says. Another challenge for her is balancing work and child care at home, which is why she recorded that video in her closet at midnight. “That’s an interesting memory for sure,” she says with a laugh.
Salemi says another challenge has been the technology. “Although most of the people in the museum’s education department are comfortable with these platforms, it has been a learning curve when trying to figure out how best to offer all of this information in a new way,” she says. “It’s definitely taken a lot of effort to pull off successfully.”
The Schiele isn’t the only museum in the nation that’s turned to virtual education during the pandemic. “One of the biggest challenges is that, once you go online with a product, you are competing at a global level,” Paysour says. “Every science museum, if they are able, is engaging audiences virtually.” He says that means the Schiele is competing on the internet and social media with giants like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
What makes the Schiele unique is its ability to personalize and regionalize its content because employees know their audiences. “We want to provide the quality local content that people can enjoy,” Jordan says. “The Schiele is a resource for local residents, and we want to continue to be that resource from home.”
Helping educators and at-home learners
Area schools closed at about the same time the museum did, but students were expected to continue to learn from home. The Schiele’s virtual learning options have been a godsend for many parents and educators. Jordan says teachers have praised the Schiele’s lessons as a way to enhance distance learning for their students. And one teacher had her students watch the YouTube video of Jordan’s interview about the Hubble telescope. She says the public has been “very supportive” of the Schiele's online approach.
Museum educators have also appeared on local TV stations such as the popular Wilson’s World on WCCB to conduct science experiments and promote the museum’s virtual learning opportunities.
“We’ve had some really positive feedback from the public,” Salemi says of their online outreach. “And it has continued to grow the longer we’ve been closed, which has been really encouraging.”
Paysour says it has been “amazing” to see how educators and students have adapted to distance learning. “Virtual programming has opened new environments for both teachers and learners to explore. There has been a great deal of ingenuity and experimentation, and almost certainly some of these new ideas and approaches will remain after things get back to normal,” Paysour says.
No busloads of kids
Usually in May and early June, school buses pack the Schiele’s parking lot. Many students who are done with end-of-grade tests head to the Schiele for fun field trips. But not this year. “We certainly have missed our visitors,” says Paysour. “Not just the field trips of students, but our everyday visitors from across the region.”
Salemi echoes that. “Although the kids can sometimes be overwhelming and I know we have all wished for a quiet day in May from time to time, there is nothing I miss more right now than being able to teach kids in person,” she says.
A reopening date for the Schiele Museum has not been set, but Paysour says he’s eager to open the doors again. “We’re excited about the opportunity to reopen to our visitors soon, and we’re planning to provide a great experience once that time comes,” he says.
But don’t be surprised if the Schiele continues to offer virtual programs after the pandemic is behind us. They just might not be videotaped in employees’ closets in the future.