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After Weathering Pandemic, Charlotte Museum Of History CEO Says 'We'll Never Go Back To Being Just Analog'

Courtesy Adria Focht

After a year of being closed and slowly reopening, museums in North Carolina are now allowed to welcome back visitors at full capacity. In 2019, before the pandemic, the Charlotte Museum of History saw just over 24,000 visitors. It would also rent out its facilities. The museum has taken a measured approach to reopening, offering virtual exhibits and outdoor tours, but its main building is still closed for renovations.

As part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, we caught up with the museum's president and CEO, Adria Focht, to see how the museum is doing as it emerges from the shutdown.

Marshall Terry: Let's start by going back a year ago. When you heard everything was closing down, what were your first thoughts?

Adria Focht: Well, as a historian, Marshall, my first thoughts were to past pandemics and really how they played out in the United States in the past. We were hearing information about, well, in two weeks we'll look at where we're at in two weeks. And that was sort of the pattern of the news cycle at that time. But knowing the history of pandemics, I think I knew from the beginning that this would be at least a year, if not an 18-month ordeal.

Terry: What did you say to your staff at the time? Did you tell them that?

Focht: Right. Well, I think, you know, again, we're a staff of historians, and I think most of us had that in the back of our minds. I mean, to be optimistic and to to be current with the news, I think we thought maybe it is just a short period? And maybe we will overcome this in a shorter period of time? But I think the logical minds in us all knew that this would be a long haul. And that's really why we moved so quickly, pivoting from in-person events into digital programing really within the first week of closure in March of 2020.

Terry: I understand the bulk of the museum's income comes from school field trips and event rentals, both of which went away with the pandemic. So what was your financial concern for the museum over the past year?

Focht: Right. I mean, we were really in a free fall. As most nonprofits and cultural institutions, we rely on the generosity of donors. We are a 501c3 nonprofit, independent from any government organization or funding. So we really rely on our donors and our earned income, as you said, from events that we host, either public events or private rental events, from field trips and from general admissions and a lot of things that are really earned income. But we relied more heavily during the closure period during the pandemic on the generosity of our donors and our longtime supporters who really came through for us.

Terry: Did you have to lay any staff off?

Focht: We did furlough our part-time staff in the beginning of the pandemic. So we had three part-time staff members who were "as-needed" to assist with field trips and to assist with rental events. So we knew as soon as those events were canceled, I mean, really, the field trips were canceled first because the schools were the first to react.

Our full-time staff, we have been able to maintain intact, and we have started bringing back our furloughed staff members now, as things are starting to come back online.

Terry: How were the museum's finances before the pandemic hit?

Focht: Like most nonprofits, we were still seeing a reduction in contributions and in earned income basically from the 2008 crisis. And so, many institutions are probably too dependent on individual contributions. And so a lot of us have moved into a more, as I said, earned-income model where we're doing events and we're doing rentals and public and private things to generate money for the institution.

As you see, there's a larger conversation about how are we going to fund our cultural and arts organizations in Mecklenburg County and in the city of Charlotte? The arts referendum for the Arts & Science Council had failed just previous to this. So I think a lot of arts and cultural organizations felt very much on the precipice right before this happened. And then many of us, again, were in freefall.

So I think we're starting to see, fortunately, most of our cultural organizations in Charlotte have been supported by the community and are ready to open their doors back up and go back to serving the people of Charlotte.

Terry: You mentioned a moment ago that the museum had to shift how it does things online, just like most everybody else has had to do the past year. Part of the lure of a history museum, though, is sharing a space with historical artifacts. What's lost and what's gained by presenting history in a virtual way?

Focht: I think there is a lot gained, particularly for the museum in the perspective of being able to do digital programing. We are reaching more people so we have more contact with people, particularly it broadened our geographic range. So we have a lot of people who are maybe former Charlotteans who live elsewhere or have family ties to Charlotte, are interested in Charlotte history, who are not able to come to our location. Likewise, we have people who maybe have transportation issues and can't make it to our east Charlotte location -- and other people who just don't like commuting around the city, right?

So I think it opened us up to be more accessible in a lot of ways. And I think it also showed people how important our cultural institutions are and how important being in person and having those real, in-person experiences with artifacts and historic places is for people. So I think in a lot of ways it showed the value and the relevance of cultural resources in our community.

Terry: What about something that may have been lost having to go online?

Focht: Well, for me, the cherry trees are in bloom at the museum. And usually when the cherry trees are in bloom at the museum, we are packed with school-aged children. So field trips are usually booming right now. And for children in particular, the tangible experience of visiting a historic site -- that's a formative experience that they never forget. They come back with their children, with their grandchildren and say, you know, I came here as a third grader. I came here on my third grade field trip. I'll never forget this. I relate Charlotte's identity, Charlotte's cultural identity, heritage to this place. And that field trip experience being lost potentially, really until next year, I think has been a loss for the children of our community.

Steve Harrison
The Charlotte Museum of History will open an exhibit about this historic Siloam School.

Terry: What's next for the museum?

Focht: So we're going to be opening two new exhibits. We're going to be opening a Catawba pottery exhibit, as well as an exhibit about the historic Siloam School. So for those who are listening do not know about the historic Siloam School, it's a 1920s era, so Jim Crow era in the South, African American schoolhouse. It was a Rosenwald-style school, so built really to serve African American students during an era of segregation.

And that school is in a state of disrepair. It's moving to the Charlotte Museum of History soon. And as part of our big reopening, once we get our new roof on our new building, we're going to open the building up to the public and we will have a new exhibit about the historic Siloam School there for people to learn more about it as we're fundraising to get the school moved to our east Charlotte location.

Terry: What would you say is the most important thing that you've learned going through the pandemic?

Focht: I've learned a lot. I think one of the biggest things for us is being able to move into the digital realm. While we do look forward to having those fully immersive in-person experiences, again, that are so critical in a historic context, we'll never go back to being just analog. So I think that we know we have so much greater posterity of the materials to be able to record it and share it. We know we have a greater geographic reach and potentially a greater equitable reach if we're providing free virtual experiences.

So I think that even when we go back to fully in-person experiences, it'll always be a little bit of a hybrid. We're going to be recording. We're going to be sharing. The digital piece that we have acquired through this past year is going to be part of our operational model moving forward.

Terry: Thank you for taking the time.

Focht: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Marshall.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.