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State museums, historic sites tally huge drop in visitors

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science hasn’t had a visitor since the state health orders were put into effect on March 15. (Paul Bearce/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico museums ended the last three months of fiscal year 2020 with zero visitors.

It’s not a number the Department of Cultural Affairs ever imagined tallying. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic forced closure of many public spaces.

According to the DCA, the department had a 38% decrease in attendance for the year.

Each of the state-run museums and historic sites experienced decreases after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s health order closing all nonessential businesses on March 15. The state-run museums and historic sites have not reopened.

Recently released attendance figures show how drastically the closures affected state museums’ annual visitor counts, though DCA officials say a record number of people are turning to the department’s online content to fill the void.

The state museums and sites experienced double-digit decreases, with the exception of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, which had only a 5% drop.

According to the DCA, the Museum of Natural History & Science had the most visitors in fiscal 2020, with 144,801. That is a 51% drop from FY19, when the museum had 293,817 visitors.

The next most visited museum was the National Hispanic Cultural Center with 115,148. The NHCC experienced a 41% drop from the 196,191 in FY19.

According to Daniel Zillmann, DCA director of communications, there were plenty of bright spots before the pandemic hit.

“The New Mexico Museum of Art’s ‘The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ: From Michelangelo to Tiepolo’ was tracking high numbers until the museum was closed on March 16 – more than two months before the exhibition was slated to end,” Zillmann said. “I’m confident that we would have met or potentially exceeded our FY19 numbers for DCA attendance.”

Not to mention that the “Yokai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan” exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art and the “Tiny Titans” exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science didn’t get to fully run their course.

“These were expected to be wildly popular as well,” Zillmann said.

Despite the decrease in attendance, not all was lost during the fiscal year.

After the closures, DCA staff and educators pivoted and created online programming.

Many of these were hits among visitors.

Zillmann said one of the most collaborative and high-engagement initiatives was “Our Fair New Mexico,” a virtual concert series, which ran from April 10 to June 28.

The series consisted of 14 concerts hosted by various museums and historic sites.

The series received more than 44,000 likes, comments and shares on social media platforms and 94,000 views.

Another success for the department was the New Mexico Sites Virtual Summer Camp, which ran June 1 through July 27.

Zillmann said the camp had an engagement of 14,000 and more than 58,000 views.

The DCA entities also put together activity kits for children and families.

The New Mexico State Library distributed 2,200 kits. The division put together over 3,500 that were distributed at libraries across the state.

“Just anecdotally from the Children’s Reports I’ve been reading, on-site attendance will be down, of course, but if you add in museum activity kits, DCA’s ‘Invite an Educator’ initiative (which is ramping up again for the school year), and all the digital content, engagement with the public will likely be greatly increased,” said Eli Guinnee, State Librarian. “… We’re reaching more people in more places.”

Zillmann said the most important number is engagement with online content, which rose by 85% in April to 134,000.

He said nearly 375,000 visitors would have been possible from March through June had the facilities been open.

“Compare that to a reach of 5.2 million and an active engagement of 370,000 on Facebook alone. I think the department has done a great job pivoting in this time of isolation.”

Zillmann said educators, curators and collections staff have been working hard to serve constituents in the safest ways possible.

“I have seen some incredible collaboration arise out of necessity. I have seen individuals rise up to the task, willingly and enthusiastically,” Zillmann said. “Aligning our social media strategy and creating resources that could be shared across the department were among the top priorities for me coming on board. Forced into a virtual realm by COVID-19, we have been able to collectively take giant leaps where the progress may have been baby steps under other circumstances.”

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