Engaging Visitors in a Pandemic

There is no doubt, the pandemic has uprooted how we traditionally do everyday tasks. Throughout this past year, as we navigated through zoom meetings, online learning, curbside pick-ups, and stay-at-home orders, our households quickly figured out we needed to adapt to survive. The same could be said for the History Center’s operations during the pandemic. How would we continue to engage our visitors during a public health crisis? What will happen to us when we close our doors to the public? When will we see our members, visitors, students again? This past year has been quite a challenge and there are many lessons we have learned.

As a history organization, we are used to welcoming people into our spaces- that’s how we can best tell our stories. Doing anything “virtually” was not a priority pre-pandemic as we’d rather our resources- both time and money – be directed to on-site experiences and our ability to share our collections with the visiting public. However, March 2020 forced us to think differently and the message was abundantly clear- the History Center needed to adapt.


With the directive to stay at home and be thankful for the investments that had been made in our technological infrastructure, our staff could hit the ground running as we were suitably equipped to work remotely. Our planning took us first to provide online access to many of the resources we offer on-site. We developed the York History at Home webpage, to connect our audience with online databases and digital archives to assist with research, tours, and links to other history organizations, student activities, and WebQuests to assist teachers in the virtual classroom. It was a great start.


Throughout the many months that followed, we expanded our offerings as we branched out to provide webinars and online discussions on history and genealogical topics with local speakers and from those around the country. Virtual school tours replaced our traditional field trips. Evident in the growing numbers of participants to our online programs, we became aware that what we were offering the public was more than just history lessons, we were offering more ways for people to connect with us without actually being on-site.  

COVID has had quite an impact on the museum field in general In a recent survey by the Seattle-based Wilkening Consulting and AAM (American Association of Museums) of 1,004 museums, 46% of those surveyed reported that their staff size decreased an average of 29% and only 44% of the respondents planned to re-hire or increase their staff size in the coming year. Additionally, 59% reported cutting back on education, programming, and other public services due to budget shortfalls and staff reductions during the pandemic.

While the outlook for museums around the country was bleak with many forced to temporarily furlough and even worse, eliminate positions due to the significant decrease in operating revenue, the diligent work of our leadership and staff worked against that trend by maintaining its staffing during the stay at home period. PPP loans, the CARES Act, and various grants provided us the financial cushion needed to maintain operations so we could provide this important engagement opportunity plus tackle the many behind-the-scenes activities that needed to be done to prepare for our future at the Steam Plant.


We were encouraged by the increasing numbers of participants in our programs from all around the country. 


For example, we gained 50 new donors through our Give Local fundraiser and welcomed over 300 new participants in our programming throughout the last 6 months of the stay-at-home orders. Our members also showed their commitment to the organization by continuing to renew their memberships and donating to the annual fund. The results showed the pandemic had a profound effect on operations but at the same time showed optimism and hope.


We hope to see you at the History Center soon! We do ask that when visiting any of our facilities that you please wear a mask. Additionally, if you are planning on visiting our Library and Archives, please be sure to make an appointment in advance.

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