Like most sectors of the economy, the museum field is facing sharp losses in revenue and uncertainty about when they will be reversed. Many institutions have decided to lay off, furlough, or otherwise reduce the employment or pay of staff for this reason. But others have resisted this course of action, committing to keep employees on while weathering the COVID-19 crisis.
One of these institutions is the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. During its closure, the museum intends to keep its paid staff, which averages about forty-two part- and full-time employees at a given time, at the same wage and employment levels as before. To accommodate this, the museum has refocused staff into five cross-functional teams, each supporting an initiative to serve audiences or protect the institution and its collections. One of these teams, which includes employees from the museum’s visitor services department, is tackling the important but often-neglected work of digitizing and transcribing written materials from the collection.
We asked the National WWI Museum and Memorial’s President and CEO, Dr. Matthew Naylor, to explain why and how the museum made this decision against the current of layoffs.
Can you explain your decision in detail? What employees have you transitioned into this work and what exactly are they doing?
The National WWI Museum and Memorial possesses the most comprehensive World War I collection in the world, which includes thousands of pages of letters, diaries, and journals. Many of those items have been digitized, but have yet to be translated, which is obviously an important distinction. With the museum being closed due to the virus, one of our team members came up with the brilliant idea to use this time and transition part of our staff toward our goal of fully transcribing those items from the collection. Led by Stacie Petersen, the Museum and Memorial’s Exhibitions Manager and Registrar, we have created a Digitization and Transcription team that examines digitized letters, journals, and diaries and works to transcribe those items so that the transcriptions become available through a variety of channels such as our online collections database, lesson plans, and more.
Where did the idea for this plan originate and what was the process for approving and putting it into operation?Skip over related stories to continue reading article
In anticipation that the virus might affect our operations, we started developing potential plans in early February. Part of that planning was to challenge supervisors from each department to consider how their team’s work could potentially be done remotely, what additional tasks could be done remotely, and how we could possibly use closure as an opportunity to address tasks that we hadn’t fully tackled—whether due to capacity, existing workloads, or any number of reasons. This particular idea was generated in a truly organic way as our guest services team, which is responsible for front-of-house operations, began generating a list of tasks that could be done remotely. Stacie Petersen, the Museum and Memorial’s Exhibitions Manager and Registrar, suggested that transcribing digitized letters could be achieved with staff members working exclusively remotely. It was an absolutely terrific and creative suggestion that immediately paid dividends. After only a few weeks, we had transcribed well over one thousand pages of content.
What kind of training and support does this require, and how are you managing that among all the other priorities right now?
The Museum and Memorial’s Exhibitions Manager and Registrar, Stacie Petersen, leads this cross-functional Digitization and Transcription team and is managing the process. Stacie created training materials and facilitated remote trainings to bring our team members up to speed on what’s involved in the transcription process. This team meets remotely on a regular basis to discuss tips, best practices, challenges, and things of that nature. The response thus far to the transcribing project has been terrific. Members of the team are really enjoying the process as it’s creating a connection point between themselves and the authors of these items from more than one hundred years ago as the content of many of these items is quite striking and can be extremely emotional. Our team members understand that the role they are serving is to create a platform for these amazing items to be shared. This is important work and it’s quite rewarding.
Was this a difficult decision to make? How did you weigh it against other options and decide it was the right one?
Our staff is absolutely invaluable. From a fundamental viewpoint, if you give the well-being of your team members the utmost importance, then doing anything and everything within your capabilities to ensure their well-being becomes your top priority. We are also stewards of this remarkable memorial and, together with our board of trustees and many stakeholders, have the responsibility for the financial health of the organization. It is a long game we are playing, and we aim to balance those things. In working with the board of trustees, we soon reached agreement that, for us, not only was this the right philosophical choice—the notion of “doing the right thing”—but our organizational culture prompted this decision as well. We believe quite strongly in the idea of taking care of each other—both in good times and in bad.
With so many other museums making the difficult call to lay off and furlough employees, how have you found the resources to avoid this?
It’s certainly not easy because, as of now, we’re projecting a loss of no less than $1 million in revenue that would have been generated by attendance, facility bookings, and things of that nature. However, we quite firmly believe that our staff is invaluable and we’re willing to show our appreciation to our staff by compensating for that loss in a variety of ways. Further, at a time of global crisis, we believe that our work has even greater resonance. At times like this, we can find courage in knowing that others faced monumental challenges and found a way through. I know we will get through this. The lessons of the past give us a pathway forward. We’re fortunate to have built up a reserve fund in the last five-plus years and we have a supporter base that is highly engaged. The organization’s history is quite unique in that this is a Congressionally designated museum and memorial that was conceived, designed, and built by the public citizens of the Kansas City area nearly one hundred years ago. Despite that designation, we do not receive federal funds and so this facility—one of the world’s great museums and one of the world’s largest war memorials—exists not only because of the public’s support from the early 1900s, but also because of the continuous public support from the past one hundred years. That support is invaluable and it’s necessary for us to continue to educate the public about the war that changed everything. To paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, this is a museum and memorial “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
What advice would you give to other museums who are currently considering their options?
During this difficult time, we’ve challenged ourselves to consistently seek to identify ways we can not only be productive, but also make enhancements or improvements. How can we reconfigure ourselves to facilitate a better remote working environment? What have we been wanting to do for years that we haven’t been able to address? What services can we provide the public to help them get through this unprecedented situation? What have we learned that we can apply if/when things return to normal? For us, we continue to pose these types of questions because we believe it not only helps us focus, but we also believe that the organization will be better because of it.