How Has the Pandemic Affected Museums? Examples from the Blackwater Draw Museum at ENMU
Check out this new article written by our Collections Manager, Samantha, on the New Mexico Humanities Council blog! Click here.
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When visiting a museum, you may have often wondered about the other artifacts the organization cares for that are not currently on exhibit. Most museums only display a small percentage of their collections for a variety of reasons, such as object stability or lack of exhibit space. These objects are carefully cared for and stored for research, public programming, and much more. Most museums have a staff member tasked with managing these objects. The Collections Manager performs all kinds of duties in relation to organizing, inventorying, and caring for the collection. This is often done with the support of other staff members, students, interns, and volunteers.
The Blackwater Draw Museum (BWDM) was among the many museums in the country whose daily operations were disrupted during the pandemic. The museum is located on the Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) campus and was originally established to house and exhibit artifacts from the Blackwater Draw Archaeological Site. This National Historic Landmark is located just outside Portales and is known for the Clovis point and Pleistocene animals (e.g. mammoths).
THE EFFECTS OF COVID-19 What happens when COVID shuts down or restricts a museum’s ability to take care of its collections? What happens when the Collections Manager’s support workers are not able to be at the museum during a pandemic? In March of 2020, the pandemic forced the Blackwater Draw Museum (BWDM) to close and staff members were not allowed back into the building for months. In November, I started as the new Collections Manager of the museum. I found myself asking some of these same questions and trying to tackle caring for the collections with little to no student support at times.
I had to find ways to continue with collections work; like most places, this included a combination of remote and socially distanced work. In the spring of 2021, two student enrolled in internship credits with museum and helped with collections tasks. One graduate student, Gabrielle, requested a remote internship after moving back with her parents during the COVID academic year when classes were all online; she created a textile manual for BWDM outlining in detail how to handle, store, and care for sensitive objects, such as fabrics and vegetal materials. An undergraduate student, Sage, assisted me in rehousing textiles and other objects in metal drawers. This allows fabrics to lay out flat and not become folded or damaged in boxes. It also makes for safe and fun viewing opportunities with behind-the-scenes tours.
Another Graduate Assistant employed by BWDM, Cash, worked on digitization efforts. Digitizing archival and photos records is an important part of museum work, especially in the 21st century. Records that exist on paper can be easily damaged and lost forever if not digitized. It also allows the information to be accessed by a wider audience, like students and researchers.
The curation lab at the museum has limited work space so all three students had separate schedules for social distancing. This meant that the museum was able to have less help this year. This story is not unique. Museums all over the country rely heavily on the support of volunteers, interns, and student employees and most of the tasks require work to be done in the lab with the artifacts. During the pandemic, this meant that collections work was slowed extensively if not brought to a halt.
During the pandemic, BWDM increased its social media presence to reach people that were not able to visit this year and even some new people as well. I created an Instagram to complement the existing Facebook page for the museum and archaeological site. Weekly posts are created to highlight an “Artifact of the Week”. Each Monday users are provided a close-up of an object from our collection and invited to guess what it might be; Friday the answer is revealed. This fun actively also allows staff and students to highlight some objects that guests would not normally get to see in storage.
REOPENING Now, in the summer of 2021, BWDM has been able to hire student workers and interns again. Slowly, the curation labs are filling with assistants and the collection work is continuing. A summer intern, Natalie, has been hired full-time at BWDM with funding from the Bureau of Land Management to assist in rehousing efforts. Other ENMU students are continuing digitization and other collections tasks.
As of June 3rd, the Blackwater Draw Museum and National Historic Landmark were able to open to the public again after over 400 days closed; student employees were hired to work at both locations. Visitors and school groups are now able to enjoy the rich history of both facilities again Thursday through Sunday. However, many of the programs, such as the annual atlatl competition, are still postponed until next year. Please visit our website to learn more about us: https://www.bwdarchaeology.com/
BLACKWATER DRAW The preservation of history at BWDM is essential. BWDM and the curation facility hold objects from the Blackwater Draw Locality 1, a National Historic Landmark and important archaeological site. Blackwater Draw (BWD) was the first site to discover the Clovis point, making it the Clovis Type Site. BWDM curates a variety of stone tools and Pleistocene megafauna (e.g. saber tooth tigers, dire wolves, and mammoths) from the site. The museum also curates materials from the broader Southwest and Plains regions. For example, currently on display are a number of artifacts from the Miles Collection; this private collection was obtained by the university in the 1960s and includes Native American objects like beadwork, basketry, and pottery.
Moving Beyond COVID-19 Now that we are open again Thursday to Sunday, we look forward to welcoming visitors back to both our facilities. BWD has learned new tactics for audience engagement and work flexibility because of the pandemic. While it slowed our operations, it also forced us to think outside the box. Priorities also changed or were altered for the time being. Like pretty much any other museum, the backlog of collections work never ends, but how we approach it could change.
Samantha Bomkamp is the Collections Manager at the Blackwater Draw Museum at Eastern New Mexico University. Born and raised in Wisconsin, she has a M.S. in Anthropology and certificates in Museum Studies and Nonprofit Management from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Samantha fell in love with the Southwest region after doing archaeology over two summers in CO and NM, and completing thesis research on Casas Grandes ceramics (Chihuahua, Mexico).