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students explore and observe the force of gravity using a tool that is immediately available to them--their shoes!
March 16, 2021

Dear Friend of the Museum,

One year. This is not an anniversary I plan to celebrate. From a professional point of view, the last year of responding to COVID-19 has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But as I look back—and think about what might have been—I am very pleased not only with how the Discovery Museum has weathered this trauma, but risen above it to provide meaningful service to families, sustain our organization, and begin to move forward on important aspects of our future. I’d like to share a bit about the last year and the next year with you.

Like everyone, we were traumatized by impact of the pandemic, the halt to a normal way of life, the disconnection from our friends and family. That trauma and the realization of how it was affecting families reinforced our role as a children’s museum. We knew that others were addressing important food, housing, and financial needs. Our role was to try to be there for emotional and educational well-being, particularly of children.

Like so much else, Discovery Museum closed last March. Despite our initial cautious optimism, re-opening was never a given. In fact, about half of the children’s museums in the country remain closed today. We are thankful that after our four-and-a-half-month closure ended in July, we have succeeded in keeping our doors open to visitors six days a week. We are so glad about this. Feedback from so many of you—about the safety you feel here, about the joy a visit brings, about the little bit of normal your kids get to feel—tells us the work and the many precautions are worth it.

“They are doing a fantastic job there when it comes to safety! I feel very safe there when I go.”

“Very grateful this place is open during these times. Kiddos have so much fun learning and playing. Very safe and clean environment, and the staff is amazing. I recommend you bring your kids there and get learning.” 

“2nd best children’s museum after the St. Louis Children’s Museum.”

(Meet me in St. Louis once we can fly again?)

Our team looked for other ways to help as well. We partnered with The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital to add two events to our virtual 2021 Speaker Series, exploring the impact of the pandemic on family mental health. Another Speaker Series event offered insights into the power of art in difficult times.

Families have had a hard time financially as well as emotionally. Making the Museum available to all has been more important than ever this year. In spring of last year, as we were planning for a possible reopening, sponsors and donors joined us in believing that getting families back out to play and learn at a familiar venue would be critical to their collective mental health. Their generosity made possible one month of free admission for all for the month of August.

Despite the revenue pressures of operating at deeply reduced capacity, we chose to continue to offer all our free and discounted admission programs for families with financial need. Fully half of our non-member visitors last year came for free or nearly free through our access programs for EBT, WIC and ConnectorCare cardholders; active duty military families; educators; families with children who have disabilities; and others.

When we reopened, we knew we would not be able to offer our Especially for Me events for families with children with disabilities in the same way we had previously. So instead we created a new, free annual membership for those families, so they could visit at any time without concern for cost. We appreciate hearing that this mattered:

“I am in tears—the big, messy kind.… What an incredibly generous, kind gift you’re offering families like ours in what has been such a hard, disconnected year.… Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Happily, we have now been able to re-start our Especially for Me schedule, with free events for families with kids on the autism spectrum, with hearing or vision loss, or with any other disability. And families still have their free memberships.

Schools have been very severely impacted by the pandemic. Last spring, when all students were at home and teachers were transitioning to remote instruction, we thought it essential to provide ways for students to learn through hands-on science exploration. We launched our Teacher Resources for Distance Learning, with at-home STEM activities themed around the same science principles as our Museum exhibits and school-visit programs. Importantly, they are clearly aligned with MA state curriculum standards and available for free.

Harder to do was to figure out how to provide the inquiry-based, instructor-led STEM experiences students typically have in their classrooms with our Traveling Science Workshops (we were on track to serve 46,000 students with TSW last school year before the pandemic hit). We worked with schools to better understand their needs; reviewed, tested, and modified our content to see what would be effective in a virtual setting; pilot tested with students and teachers; and refined our offerings. The result, Virtual Traveling Science Workshops, preserves our live instruction, via Google Classroom or other technology, enabling our instructors to actively engage with students and encourage their personal explorations.

Thousands of students have participated in these live, virtual, hands-on STEM workshops with our instructors this school year. The last thing we wanted kids to lose was another point of contact with a supportive adult.

Recently we began offering another way for students and teachers to have a Discovery Museum experience—Field Trips on Tour. Our goal was to create an immersive STEM learning experience, such as what a class visit to the Museum offers, including prompts and suggestions for exploration as would be offered by Museum Explorer floor staff. Our first Field Trip on Tour, the Feel the Force laboratory toolkit, has all the materials and guidance for students to explore independently or together the everyday science, math, and engineering that surrounds them—just like on a Discovery Museum Field Trip.

For many families, Discovery Museum has played a meaningful role in helping kids and their adults to cope during this pandemic. We will continue to do that, but we are also looking forward to what is next.

Our immediate future includes planning in three key areas: sustainability; diversity, equity, access, and inclusion; and expanded ways to have an impact in our community. Our staff and board, along with key advisors and supporters, are actively moving this set of agenda items forward.

And we will need the continued support of all of you as we keep moving forward. We are so grateful for the 179% growth in donors in the past year; for the fact that so many of you have maintained your memberships; and that you have sent us so many notes of positive feedback and encouragement. Those things, along with seeing smiling faces beneath those masks, keep us energized every day and as we plan our future. Much more about that future to come in the next update. As always, please send me your thoughts and questions, to ngordon@discoveryacton.org.

Stay safe. Stay happy.

Neil

P.S. Despite all that we have accomplished in recent years, the support of our community has perhaps never meant as much to this institution as it has this past year and does now. Please let me take this opportunity to offer our deepest thanks to all those who supported Discovery Museum in 2020. You will find a brief look at our year and recognition of your support in our 2020 Report of Gifts.