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Lessons Learned from SARS (and Strikes) at the Ontario Science Center

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Often the best way to foresee the future is to revisit the past. In March, professor Marjorie Schwarzer offered an overview of how US museums responded to three pandemics in the 20th century. Today on the blog, Jennifer Martin, Julie Bowen, and Lesley Lewis—who were all formerly staff members at the Ontario Science Center at the turn of this century—share how that institution navigated two crises similar to those facing museums in the current pandemic. This post complements the AAM webinar that Jennifer, Julie, and Lesley gave on April 22, 2020. You can access a full recording of the webinar here.

–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

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In February 2003, the world was rocked by a respiratory virus that threatened to spread, unconfined, into a full pandemic. It hit hardest in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Toronto, Canada. That virus was SARS, and by March 26th a state of emergency was declared in Toronto.

The experiences of the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), other museums in the city, and the broader culture sector were the nucleus of a webinar with the American Alliance of Museums in mid-April this year, almost 20 years later.

There are huge questions facing our sector, and while the scale and overall impact of the novel Coronavirus far surpasses that of SARS 2003, many questions raised back then have resonance to our profession now. How do we get our audiences back, and back safely? How will our staff respond to the break in operations, in their salaries, in their teamwork? How do we restart our museums? And critically to the ability to fulfill our mission in the future, how do we recover financially?

First, let’s cover the general context in 2003. At the time the OSC had a budget of approximately $30M (CAD) of which roughly 45% was supported by an annual operating grant from the provincial government. Annual attendance was 1,000,000 supported by a staff of 350 FTE. The original facility opened in 1969 and it was beginning a $47M capital renewal program (2003-2006) focused on innovation, open-ended visitor experiences, and current science responsiveness.

When the state of emergency was declared in Toronto, the OSC experienced an immediate reduction in attendance. It must be noted that a significant difference between SARS and the 2020 pandemic is that no cultural institutions in Toronto were closed in 2003. Schools remained opened, business remained opened, and yet the impact was vast. Toronto was seen as an unsafe place to visit, and tourists and convention visitors cancelled their plans immediately. In all, over 20,000 people were quarantined, over 13,000 lost their jobs particularly in the tourism and hospitality industry, and the province experienced a $2B loss overall.

The people of Toronto also experienced an increase in racism and discrimination as fear of the virus caused some to lash out at members of Asian communities, particularly owners of businesses in the three significant Chinatowns in Toronto. Overall the epidemic lasted 14 weeks, with two specific waves of infection – February to April through public transmission paths and, May to June isolated within the healthcare system. In total there were 25,000 people quarantined, 438 confirmed cases of whom 43 died, a number which looks incredibly small by today’s pandemic statistics. However the mortality rate has been calculated as having been over 13% in 2003, compared to an approximate 5.8% in the US from COVID-19 (as of May 4, 2020, as calculated by the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine).

OSC attendance impact – relative to year-over-year averages, and budget (remember the science centre never closed):

  • April – June 2003 -44%
  • July – September -29% [1]
  • October – December +19%
  • January – March +8% (2004)

While the 2003 SARS epidemic did not close OSC, a public service strike in the spring of 2002, which included the unionized employees of the OSC, closed the science centre completely, and lasted over 8 weeks. Since the SARS epidemic did not cause the closure of the cultural institutions in Toronto, and ended fairly abruptly in the fall of 2003, the strike mirrors the uncertainty of timing, and significant and often negative disruption of working relationships that we may be experiencing now.

How do we re-assure our staff?

By now we all have a good understanding of the implications to personal safety caused by the novel coronavirus. In 2003 this wasn’t seen as such an issue, likely due to the relatively rapid containment of the epidemic. However, the implications for mental health and social safety were abundant after the strike in 2002. Many staff did not want to strike, and found themselves financially stressed. Many were angry, depressed, uncomfortable with returning after a divisive period. Management had worked hard to maintain positive relations during the strike, and we welcomed the team back with breakfast and our thanks.

However, relationships needed to be rebuilt, and managers had to be wary of just jumping back into previous patterns. After the strike ended, the OSC stayed closed for 3 days to allow re-acclimation of the team. We talked, we listened, and we carefully inquired as to how individuals were faring.  Also, while everyone knew what to do on a daily basis, re-starting the science centre was not ‘normal’ activity. It was important to treat ‘re-start’ like a small project and reviewing the steps that we needed to take before welcoming back our visitors.

Fast forward to 2020 and note that this also a time for museums to re-think some of their regular processes, which can be exciting to some and cause deep fear in others. Don’t miss this opportunity, but equally don’t spring a whole new regime on your teams. Remember that some people continued to be paid during the current crisis, while others suffered significant financial hardship. If your museum has the means, consider offering an advance of pay checks to help people catch up, while setting a clear payback period (at OSC we did this with a 4 month return to normal). Managers generally need to update/remember their HR policies and be responsive.

Finally, for leaders and managers it is important to remember that many of you have been actively working from home. Many of your staff have not, so while your tempo (stressed as it is) has been trying to keep pace with adjusting budgets, timelines, exhibition schedules etc., those members of your staff who have been completely out-of-work will need time to catch up. Be patient, be gentle, be empathetic, and be open to the  grieving (both for those who have lost loved ones in this time, and for other types of loss – colleagues who are not returning etc) that may be invisible to most. Some people who lived through SARS showed signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. There has perhaps never been a more important time to put mental health first.

How do we get our audiences back?

First, how do we help our visitors know that we are safe to visit when there is great concern about the high-touch nature of many of our museums and science centres. At the OSC we typically did cleaning early in the morning, then again after hours. During SARS we greatly amplified the presence of our exhibit cleaning, and even diverted exhibit maintenance staff to spend more time visibly cleaning during operating hours. Hand sanitizing stations were not “a thing” in 2003, but we found a supplier and put them out. We also brought out portable hand-wash stations. Also, for the longer term, we made changes to exhibition renewal projects and added plumbed-in hand wash stations in exhibit galleries.

From an audience perspective we saw member attendance numbers recover first. Then, due to  a sense of recovery in the city overall by September, we actually saw a resurgence of school visits that pushed our attendance above forecast, even for a typical autumn period. We suspect that teachers had a desire to help their students normalize that fall and may have had budget left over from field trips not taken in the spring.

Family attendance continued to rebuild through the fall. Health Care workers were offered free admission in thanks for their service for four months post SARS. However, tourism attendance did not really recover in Toronto for at least three years.

In 2003 we didn’t have “social distancing” to manage, nor were masks being worn. As we welcome our audiences back in 2020 both these things will be major factors in our museums. Opening up exhibit spaces by removing some exhibits may actually work in our favour as it will make it easier for visitors to maintain a comfortable physical distance. Partnering with other organizations to co-brand masks for guests who come without may help buoy the community recovery overall. We will need to be highly responsive as social norms change and adjust over the next year.

How can we recover financially?

There is so much variability in our field, that this is a tough question to answer succinctly. However, a key factor for recovery in Toronto in 2003 was the founding of Toront03 Alliance. This group, of which the OSC CEO (Lesley Lewis) was a board member, worked across cultural industries, hospitality and restaurants to develop collaborations like never before. Entertainment packages were offered that included tickets for the performing arts/theatre, night at a downtown hotel or a dinner for two at a restaurant, plus discounted tickets for the science centre, Royal Ontario Museum or Art Gallery of Ontario.

It should be noted that the restaurant business in all our cities is being seriously impacted by the current pandemic too, and potential partnerships that cross all visitor-engagement sectors may be very helpful to restoring confidence in our communities. Tourists may or may not be an important factor in your business model, but certainly the resilience of your local community will be of paramount importance to the recovery of your museum.

Additionally, look for smaller players in your region. Are there partners you work with who may be even more vulnerable to the financial and human costs of this pandemic?  Those non-profits may actually need your help to get through this crisis. The diversity of our society depends on more than the just big players surviving.

Finally, look to your unique skills and assets to enhance your museum’s relevance during this period of recovery. Consider whether content plans already on the books can be modified slightly to better suit the interest, mood and tempo of the time. We know that the public still puts trust in our work as museums. Science museums will be important as the pandemic slowly  ends, especially if a second or third wave of infection develops next fall or winter. Science and scientists are currently at the forefront as the world strives for solutions; who better to engage the public in dialogue than a science centre/science museum? History museums can add important context to our present situation from the past. Art museums bring emotion and response to the stress and uncertainty we may continue to face.  Children’s museums need to continue to be a safe place for play.

Overall, be responsive. Continue to find your unique niche on social media, and work with others to share common language and messages. Try new things or modify what you already do. Quick signs, tests for communication at your entrance, might help people know what you’ve done to prepare for them. Listen to the first audiences coming back, ask them how they are feeling and behaving, and adjust accordingly. This is such a new situation for all of us, and we learn best by learning together.

[1] this period included the 5-day blackout when power was lost throughout Ontario, Ohio and most of the eastern states of the US

About the authors:

Lesley Lewis was Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Science Centre from 1998-2014.

Jennifer Martin is former Vice President of Visitor Experience, Ontario Science Centre; and former and Founding Chief Executive Officer, TELUS Spark.

Julie Bowen is former Associate Director of Development and Design, Ontario Science Centre; and former Vice President of Visitor Experience, TELUS Spark.

All now support museums as independent consultants.

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