When COVID-19 struck, Historylinks Museum was already in the process of preparing to open for the 2020 season. All was suddenly on hold and our Curator and Museum Assistant worked from home before eventually being put on Furlough. During this time the Trustees and Museum Committee began the task of altering the way the museum worked in terms of its digital output. It felt really important to make sure that the local community and potential visitors still had access to the heritage, but in a different way. Funding was granted from MGS to update and enhance our popular Image Archive and make it even more user friendly and accessible. It also enabled us to set up an online ticketing service and pre booked museum tours via our website for when we eventually reopened. We managed to engage more people with our Facebook Page. The local community have been very active in commenting on posts and sharing memories jogged by the images. It has also been possible to set up a digital platform that has enabled us to share film clips from our Archive easily.
By the beginning of July, it was clear that the Scottish Government was going to allow museums to reopen and so it was time for the Historylinks team to make a decision. To reopen or stay closed? It was not a decision that was taken lightly, but consultation with staff and volunteers revealed that everyone wanted to take steps to open the doors of the Museum once again. A few volunteers have not able to return for the time being because they are still shielding but all were supportive of the plan to reopen. Museum staff were back at work on the 8th July and working towards a reopening date of 18th July.
Another grant from MGS allowed us to buy the appropriate equipment such as PPE, hand sanitiser and other items we needed in order to reopen safely.
The staff and committee members then worked together to create as safe a space as possible in order to welcome back visitors. The first thing in place was a Perspex screen at reception and adequate PPE for all staff and volunteers.
With all this in mind we created our ‘7 steps to safety’. The steps are displayed outside the building and again in reception so that people can read and take in the information before entering the museum. A short film about what to expect in terms of safety measures when visiting will be up on our website soon.
One of the most important points in the 7 steps is the requirement for visitors to wear a face covering and sanitise their hands on entering the building. We have automatic hand sanitiser stations on entry and around the building with paper towels and bin provided.
The reception and retail area here at Historylinks can form a bottleneck for visitors because as well as the way in, it is the way out! The answer to this problem is a traffic light system on entry. This means that our staff and volunteers are in complete control of the flow of visitors. They are able to work the traffic lights remotely from the counter to allow only one party of people at reception at a time. This takes the pressure off the volunteer and allows them time to record track and trace details, fill in Gift Aid forms and explain the one-way system around the museum.
Some things have had to change more significantly. We decided to implement a ‘no touch’ policy around the building in order to minimise any cross infection. Our interactive displays were removed and the children’s toys put away into storage. The addition of polite reminders not to touch the glass cases or exhibits ensures that people are aware of our policy as they walk around.
Having to close the children’s room was sad for us as we love having youngsters in the museum. So, instead of toys in the children’s room they have a fantastic animated film to watch made by local children about Dornoch’s mythical fairy bridge ‘The Gizzen Brigs’. In addition to this, they can see the amazing masks created by our Young Curator’s for their Halloween walk last October. Plus, they can enjoy our story labyrinth in the grounds of the museum.
The addition of a new outdoor exhibition called ‘Domestic Life’ featuring objects from the 19th and early 20th Centuries means that we have enhanced our exterior displays, giving visitors even more to enjoy outside.
Despite the restrictions in the museum we have gone ahead with our new exhibition of Katherine Gray’s dress from 1710 and the display of our East Sutherland Longhouse project featuring a scale model of a pre-clearance settlement.
Since reopening we have had a steady stream of visitors. Everyone so far has been compliant with our new rules. Occasionally we might have to prompt someone to use the hand sanitiser on entry but this has not caused a problem. Numbers are running at about 60% of the same time last year.
Visitors have commented that they feel the museum is well organised and volunteers have said that they feel safe with the new safety measures in place. The most difficult thing is having to turn people away when we are at capacity. Especially if it is raining! We do try to encourage people to come back and can generally estimate when we will have room for them.
We do keep a stock of disposable facemasks for people who have lost for forgotten to bring their own.
The main thing we have learned is not to rush entry to the museum. People are always eager to get into the museum but we do have to take quite a lot of information, especially if visitors are Gift Aiding their entrance fee. Taking time to make sure that all the information is accurate is imperative for track and trace and our traffic light system has been very valuable in allowing that to happen.
Our opening times have changed slightly to 10.30am – 4pm but we are still open 7 days a week.