The solid stone building at the top of North Fir Street has seen it all, from floods to fires, mining catastrophes and strikes, births and deaths — it was once a hospital, after all — scads of giddy skiers and all the small triumphs and heartbreaks of life in a remote mountain town. And, when it comes to rampant virus outbreaks, the current COVID-19 pandemic is not the building’s first. But, when it comes to accepting visitors again after a lengthy shutdown, there is no how-to manual, according to Kiernan Lannon, executive director of the Telluride Historical Museum (THM). The beloved institution is reopening July 1, by appointment only.
“It's been a long road navigating the health orders and getting the necessary precautions into place,” Lannon said. “Turns out there isn't much of a playbook for operating a museum in a pandemic, but I know once we can get guests back into the museum it will all have been worth it.”
Appointments will be taken Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and there will be a number of restrictions as THM staff work to keep themselves and their guests safe.
According to a recent email to museum supporters, visitors must don a mask and avail themselves of hand sanitizer that will be provided. Masks will be provided for those who need one. Groups must be no larger than 8 people and be part of one booking. Social distancing will be encouraged at all times.
The museum’s interactive exhibits have been pulled to help minimize potential spread of the virus and between each group there will be sufficient time for staff to disinfect the building before the next group enters. Museum staff anticipates each visit will last about an hour. Lannon said he and his staff will keep tabs on local public health orders and are prepared to make visiting more — or less — restrictive than opening day plans, depending on the current situation. Housed in the former Hall’s Hospital, Lannon said he’s not keen on seeing the building host the ill.
“It's just funny that right now this is one, retired hospital where we don't want sick folks,” he said.
Given that Telluride — and the world — experienced devastating losses as a result of the 1918 flu pandemic, Lannon and his staff are expanding on the Medical History gallery on the second floor, an exhibit that touches a bit on that historic chapter.
“The problem is that we don't have many artifacts from the 1918 flu to help tell the story,” he said. “We're hoping to rectify that this time around. We've been actively soliciting folks for and collecting a number of items from masks to posters to artwork to oral history stories and museum staff have also been out doing some photo documentation of the community and its response to the pandemic.”
And, since we’re living through another historic period in time, THM staff is also contemplating installing a live history exhibit that explores Telluride’s response to the coronavirus. He said the work of documenting history as it unfolds will make it easier on museum staff 100 years from now.
“We think an institution like ours can help use the past to provide some sense of meaning or context to what we're all going through,” Lannon said. “It might be interesting to take a look at history as it's unfolding in that way. It isn't often that you realize you're living through an extended period that will become historically significant. I mean, it already is significant in our lives but it stands to reason that it will also loom extremely large in history.”
And yes, history can repeat itself. Lannon shared his reflections on life during a pandemic, then and now.
“In terms of how COVID compares to the 1918 flu, it is kind of eerily similar in some respects, particularly the ease in which both viruses seemed to have spread,” he said. “What's harder for me, and I imagine many people, to wrap my head around is how little our modern medicine has been helpful against COVID. This is another way it's similar to the 1918 flu and other diseases of 100 years ago. They just didn't have the science or technology to combat that flu so isolation and quarantine — which were fairly routine responses to outbreaks of illnesses — were implemented on a wide scale.
“Fast forward 102 years and we find ourselves in a very similar situation. Modern medicine just hasn't had the time to work out a response so it's like we're flung back in time to a degree having to do things we haven't had to do — like isolation and quarantine and distancing and mask use — in decades because our medicine and technology have become so much more advanced than what our ancestors were dealing with. It doesn't seem possible that this is where we find ourselves in such a similar situation to folks from over 100 years ago when so much else has advanced, but here we are.”
Like many other nonprofits in Telluride, Lannon said THM is experiencing budgetary challenges brought on by early closure in March, a late reopening, and being forced to cancel or scale back fundraising events. THM received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which Lannon expects will be forgiven, and continues to receive funding through its mill levy. He plans on further revenue shortfalls, but is tweaking the expense side of the museum’s budget and has a reserve on which to fall back, if need be.
“It does help that we worked our tails off to build up our operating reserve so we might be able to weather a rainy day to a degree, though I don't think any of us thought that rainy day would look quite this rainy,” he said. “At the end of the day, if we do need to cover some of those losses with our reserve, I'm confident we can do so.”
Members and donors have been steadfast by renewing memberships or increasing membership levels, a show of support for which Lannon is grateful.
“We're incredibly lucky to have such generous supporters, and we're going to continue to lean on them to help see us through this situation,” he said. “So given all of these factors, I think we'll be able to soldier through this situation. It'll be hard, and we'll have a tremendous debt of gratitude by the end of it, but I'm hopeful we'll be able to pay that off with continued quality service to the community.”
Summer is the museum’s busiest season and when the weather turns unfavorable for outdoor pursuits, visitors flock to the massive structure to take in its artifacts and stories.
“Most of the folks I've responded to wanted to make sure we'd be open in some capacity when they planned to visit later in the summer,” Lannon said. “As we continue to see more visitors come to town, and if we have a decently rainy monsoon season, I expect that demand will only increase.”
Lannon said THM staff is eager to open the doors to visitors once again.
“(We) love what we do and we can't wait to get back to sharing the wonderful and fascinating history of this place with people,” he said. “Not being able to share these stories as easily has been the most frustrating part of the lockdown. We did our best to adapt and we'll have to continue to do so, but we know that nothing beats getting to be up close with artifacts as you engage with history in person, so we're excited to welcome folks back.”
To schedule an appointment and pay in advance, call the museum at 970-728-3344, or visit the website at telluridemuseum.org.