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Museum of Cultural and Natural History adapts to COVID-19, moves into the 21st century


Due to the occupancy limits on classrooms, the Main Gallery of the CMU Museum of Cultural and Natural History has been transformed into a classroom to accommodate more students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like most businesses, Central Michigan University’s Museum of Cultural and Natural History was forced to close when the COVID-19 pandemic first affected the community.

It reopened in August, pursuing a more efficient way of operating, though the number of guests has remained sparse. 

“(The museum) was loud and boisterous,” said museum director and faculty member Jay Martin. “We miss that element of the general public coming to visit us.” 

Martin said although the museum became a quieter and more reflective place since the beginning of COVID-19, workers are taking advantage of the time to design improvements and advance their HyFlex teaching program.

The Museum of Cultural and Natural History will celebrate its 50-year anniversary in Spring 2021. It has displayed exhibits in static cases since the mid 1970s. Now, museum officials and students are working to create a more digital and mobile format for guests.

"(The Museum of Cultural and Natural History is) the only museum associated with a museum studies program in the country that primarily exists to help students learn how to administer methods and techniques of museum work and be able to apply them in a real world setting,” Martin said. 

It's important to the faculty members at the museum to provide in-person classes for students wishing to take part in the museum studies program was a necessity. The original classroom, however, was not big enough to seat every student while abiding to social distancing regulations.

“We took down a series of old exhibit cases … and cleared the way for the installation of equipment that made our main exhibit gallery a HyFlex classroom,” Martin said. 

The large room was made to accommodate more seating than before. This provides students with the opportunity to learn in the same type of environment they may someday work in.

"It's a big change since last year," said Muskegon sophomore Evelyn Mackey. "I think the museum's for sure trying to adapt and fit the needs of the public and CMU."

By studying inside the museum, Martin said students learn to manage guests, deliver museum programs, prepare exhibits and work with artifacts.

The program provides students with the opportunity to have a higher level of experience and engagement by the time they graduate. Although students may not have the same opportunities this semester, the HyFlex program is working. 

Olivet junior Madelyn Smith said the program is not too different than in years past. She was taking a course in the spring when college campuses moved to an online format.

Smith said having the opportunity to attend classes virtually aids the strenuous three-hour class time. 

"Having the chance to be at home can let you eat and drink and go to the bathroom, which might not be as easy in a three-hour class," Smith said.

Before COVID-19, students would have hands on activities during a long class period. Now, that opportunity is rare. Many students appreciate the option to choose whether they attend class on any given day. With the converted main gallery, any number of them are able to attend in person while remaining safe.

Even though the museum may not appear as occupied now as it has been in past years, the building is busy with improvement and flowing ideas. 

In the spring, a large door will be installed so larger artifacts may be placed on display. One of these artifacts is a 1920s transport truck. Made in Mount Pleasant, the truck still runs and is one of only three left. 

The museum is also continuing some of its most successful public events through an online format. Some of these include Backyard Birding and Curious Creators. 

According to Museum Coordinator and Educator Caity Burnell, Backyard Birding is a free Kids and Culture event open to people of all ages. The event provides the opportunity to explore and help classify the museum’s extensive collection of birds. The museum has one of the largest and most complete collections of flora and fauna that’s in existence, Martin said. 

This year, Backyard Birding will be held Saturday, Nov. 14 through Zoom. The event will be open to everyone and can be accessed through the museum's page on CMU's website. 

Curious Creators allows grade-school students to show their knowledge of history and museums by participating in a competition. During the competition, students will present a documentary, website, exhibit, paper, or performance which they have created. This event will take place virtually on Nov. 11 via Zoom.

Museums across the country are working to find ways to offer events digitally. With the majority of entertainment areas remaining closed, online museum programs allow the public to take part in these activities and stay up to date with the addition of exhibits. 

"The museums that do have stuff online, or are easily accessible, are doing a lot better right now than those that do not," Big Rapids sophomore Katie Higley said.

Gladwin senior Alexandra Gamicchia agrees.

"This time has definitely forced us to learn some of those more tech savvy skills and to get more into the 21st century, use Facebook Live and offer virtual programming," Gamicchia said. "It's definitely been a big push for us to expand what we offer and an opportunity to reach beyond the Mount Pleasant area."