By Megan Anderson, Manager of Exhibits & Interpretive Planning
Unlike most museums, the Whitesbog Historic Village in Browns Mills, New Jersey, is primarily an outdoor site, so hasn’t faced some of the same challenges as cultural institutions that welcome guests into confined indoor spaces. Even so, the team at Whitesbog has carefully considered and made changes to their programming to ensure visitor and staff safety. I caught up with Executive Director Allison Pierson about what this looks like.
Q: What does your reopening timeline look like?
Whitesbog Historic Village is located in a state forest (Brendan T. Byrne State Forest) so in some ways, we have been open throughout the pandemic to hikers, drivers, dog walkers, bicyclists, kayakers, and horse-back riders. Because there is no gate and we are a public park, visitors can come to look at the buildings and walk the trails anytime. We found that more people were coming out to enjoy the outdoor spaces and we have seen an increase in biking in the park. Our staff was working from home most days then stopping into the village weekly to shoot Virtual Tours; take pictures; put out trail maps; check in on the gardens; see what was in bloom; see how the blueberry fields were doing and check on the buildings; looking to see if we had any storm damage and ensure trails were clear. In June we reopened the General Store for in-person porch sales on Saturdays and now the store is open from Friday through Sunday. We kicked off online General Store sales in March and we saw a huge increase in online sales there, which really kept us going.
Typically we host a Blueberry Festival the last weekend in June and welcome over 5,000 visitors to the village for our biggest fundraiser of the year. We saw in March and April that it was looking iffy so we started brainstorming some alternative plans. We are now hosting Blueberry Festival To Go all season long, with a Virtual Blueberry Festival on our website and in-person Blueberry Mini-Market events each Saturday of the summer blueberry season. In late June, we launched the festival website with music, arts, photos, videos, reflections from volunteers and participants, and updates from local blueberry farms and Whitesbog friends and board members. Throughout July, we hosted Blueberry Festival activities, including blueberry plant sales, fresh blueberry sales, blueberry pie pick-up events, and some of our favorite local vendors joined us to sell their wares, while socially distancing. We also had some musicians picking on the porch and free wagon rides for families.
Many of our crafters and food vendors depend on festivals all summer, so with the cancellations, we found out many had no website or online shop. We want to provide some safe options to get their handcrafts out there. We also led outdoor blueberry tasting tours in July, for small groups. In August, we will restart Village Tours, Volunteer Work Day, and Moonlight Hikes but we will be adapting to outdoor gatherings only. We are working now with our volunteer carpenter to build stanchions for self-guided viewing of some interiors in our historic cottages. We are also investing in the replacement of surfaces on 12 of our picnic tables to allow for outdoor programs around our new stage. This will allow families to come out for a picnic, listen to a band, attend a public talk outdoors, and stay safely apart.
We will be experimenting with some new walking tours using parts of building interiors. Our worker’s cottages each have four doors and connecting rooms, allowing airflow through the ground floor and they line up with each other so you can easily walk through the Gallery, the classroom cottage, and the interpretive cottage as an indoor/outdoor experience. With the addition of some outdoor signage, we are planning to create a mini-tour of the Village. We will also be opening the ground floor of Elizabeth Coleman White’s house, as Elizabeth’s offices are on the first floor. and there are three doors, including two that open onto a side porch. Our event rentals will start back up in August for small events. We are hoping to continue with event rentals, but we are preparing booking parties for changes if the state mandates.
Q: What measures will you take or have you taken to ensure the safety of staff and visitors?
We are allowing staff to work from home most days and scheduling time in buildings to stagger our work. We luckily have three buildings with offices, so there does not need to be much overlap for our three staff. We purchased masks for staff and disposable masks for our volunteers and the public. We set up a hand sanitizer station at the door to the General Store and have masks available there, and we set up contactless soap dispensers in the bathrooms. We reworded event descriptions to include details about wearing masks and social distancing and we have signs in front of the store announcing customers need to be wearing masks to shop on the porch. We have contracted with a cleaning company to maintain the bathrooms and sanitize surfaces. Many of our team members feel wary about reopening and we are continuing our virtual programs including virtual camp, board meetings, membership meetups, virtual hikes, and a new book club. The hikes have been very popular and we have found they are not only helpful for safety but also a nice offering for those who can’t get out as much.
Q: What do you want the public to know about the changes you have/intend made/to make?
Safety is our first goal and we are doing everything we can to bring fun and engaging programs while following safety guidelines. We miss our members, visitors, and volunteers, so it has been great for me to see them when the store is open or they are stopping by to ask a question or pick up a map to take a hike on the trails. We are adapting and being creative about new ways to share our deep love of South Jersey, The Pine Barrens, blueberries, cranberries, nature, and history! We plan to continue to develop hybrid programs with both digital, virtual, and in-person, hands-on elements, especially as we head into the school year, in whatever form it takes. We are writing grants to help fund the development of new tours, traveling and online exhibits, and our new school and camp programs for kids. We love to hear from our visitors, both online and in-person, about what they like, what they would like to see, and how we can better serve them.
Q: How do you think the experience at Whitesbog Historic Village will change as a result?
Whitesbog Historic Village will always have a tactile, real element that you can’t experience over a computer screen, like when you feel the breeze coming off the cranberry bogs. Being on the trails, in the shade, hearing the frogs and birds, seeing the pollinators close up in a blueberry flower or mountain laurel blossom—that can’t be replaced. Picking up a tool and volunteering in the gardens, spending time side by side with other volunteers is so important to us. We have enjoyed watching virtual tours and we have found there are some areas you can explore virtually that we could not go to as a group. When our garden guru Mark gives a walking tour on the computer, we can actually keep up with all of the botanical names he mentions and write them down or look them up right away! Online General Store shopping means that we can reach people who might never be able to visit us in person or who have moved away from the area and miss South Jersey and our handmade products. It also means you can shop at any time of the day or night, which is helpful when our store is only open three days a week.
This time has made us really think about what is essential about our work, what we value most, and how we can still provide experiences and education around those elements (community, farming, nature, foods, history). We have also been thinking about how to broaden our stories and working with scholars to develop more interpretive programs about all cultures. As many of us were home with family, it made us think about our worker’s cottages, how historically, four families shared those small spaces for two months, and cooked together, cleaned together, and had fun together. We have been talking as a staff about focusing on what is important, considering the hard work of people who help keep us safe, bring us fresh food, keep us healthy and spending time with family, being outdoors, observing nature, the changing seasons, seeing spring and summer in a new way, enjoying simple things we can do together.
What do reopening plans look like at your institution? We’d love to hear from you! Please reach out to Jen Giambrone (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss having your museum, historical site, library, or archive featured on our blog.
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