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Cancellation of Popular Events Serves Biggest Blow to Local Landmarks

By ERIC AYRES

Staff Writer

Local museums in the Ohio Valley have all been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have found different ways to adapt to the changes brought about by safety concerns.

While all area museum curators are eager to see things safely return to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy, baby steps are being taken in many cases this year to keep visitors engaged and coming in to see local landmarks and the many treasures they have on display.

Like most businesses deemed “non-essential,” museums were forced to close their doors when the pandemic first hit back in March of 2020.

“We were closed to the public until after Memorial Day,” Christin Byrum, director of museums at Oglebay, said, noting that the staff began working on preparations for their eventual reopening from day one. “It actually gave us time to prepare and put safety protocols in place.”

At Oglebay’s Mansion Museum and the Oglebay Institute Glass Museum, safety measures that were implemented included tough-free cash registers, strategic traffic-flow patterns inside the facilities, digitized materials and other safety features, along with hand sanitizing stations and required wearing of masks.

“We were able to adapt fairly well,” Byrum said, noting that the museum community across the country and around the world found itself connecting online and sharing ideas and inventive ways to best deal with the pandemic. “The biggest thing has been not being able to have group events. That’s been the biggest disappointment.”

Last year, Oglebay’s annual Antique Show and Sale was set to celebrate its 65th year. The museum’s biggest annual fundraiser and largest antique show in the state had to be scrapped.

Bigger gathers at Oglebay Park typically help draw crowds to the museum, too, but major traffic through group tours and motor coach visits could not be hosted last year during the peak season. Yet day trippers helped balance out the loss of bus visitors, as walk-in traffic from local visitors and one-tank-trip tourists actually increased during the pandemic, Byrum said.

Debbie Jones, site manager at West Virginia Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling, agreed that the larger groups and bus tours have been greatly missed.

“Since last March, the school groups that we typically host just didn’t get to come,” Jones said. “None of them have been in. Most of the people we see are on short, getaway trips from Columbus or Pittsburgh.

Major events at West Virginia Independence Hall also had to cancel over the past year. Big draws like the annual History Bowl, Constitution Day and West Virginia Day were all nixed in light of safety concerns for mass gatherings. Yet, the historic facility remains open, and according to pandemic guidelines related to space, between 60-65 people can be in Independence Hall at any given time.

“We are open, and we are here,” Jones said. “The doors are open, and it’s free for anyone to come take a look around. For a while, it was just the UPS man showing up, but this past weekend, we had about 15 to 20 folks come in. A lot of people are interested in our history, even folks from outside the area. I think people are looking for a reason to thaw out and get out. Hopefully the worst is behind us.”

Museums have had to adapt by hosting smaller events instead of relying on their biggest annual draws. Some facilities — like West Virginia Independence Hall, which is funded through the state — don’t have to rely on visitors and paid admission to keep afloat. Many other museums, however, depend on donations and admissions to fund their operations.

In Belmont County, there are several museums to visit from smaller historic landmarks like the Great Western School on National Road near Ohio University Eastern to newer attractions like the Tri-State Military Veterans Museum in Belmont.

“Unfortunately, most museums survive on events,” Barbara Ballint, executive director of the Belmont County Tourism Council, said. “Some people may visit a museum once to check it out for the first time, but it’s the special events that give them a reason to come back.”

Big events with guest speakers and annual displays with larger gatherings all had to be canceled because of the pandemic, Ballint noted. The pandemic has affected tourism in general that brings buses and outside dollars into the county with people visiting attractions like the National Imperial Glass Museum in Bellaire, the Stillwater Meeting House and Watt Center for History & the Arts in Barnesville, the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing and the Sedgwick House Museum in Martins Ferry.

Many have opened to limited guests on a call-ahead, pre-arranged basis. Facilities like the Belmont County Heritage Museum in downtown St. Clairsville did open doors to the public last year, only to make the “tough decision to close” again later when coronavirus cases continued to warrant health concerns.

“It’s been really sad, because the events really help our museums,” Ballint said. “But the situation has forced us to be more creative, more innovative and to think outside of the box.” Ballint noted that the “Virtual Tours” section at visitbelmontcounty.com has been greatly enhanced and is a popular way to visit local landmarks under the circumstances.

But most museum curators and tourism leaders are looking forward to a time when things can reopen. Until then, smaller events a new approaches are being eyed, and safety will continue to be a top priority at the local museums.

“We typically have 700 to 900 people through the door every year, but we had under 100 last year,” Emery Stewart, president of the Belmont County Victorian Mansion Museum in Barnesville, said. “Our trustees are 60-plus years in age, and we have an all volunteer staff. We’re just hesitant to be around very many people in light of everything that’s been going on.”

The popular historic museum in Barnesville had to cancel its big annual Christmas extravaganza this past year. Some tours have been held by appointment — with required wearing of masks, use of hand sanitizing stations and social distancing practiced — but for the most part, the hustle and bustle at the museum has been put on hold.

During the down time, some renovations were able to take place at the museum, Stewart noted, including some exterior painting that helped make the stately mansion look even better.

With vaccines being distributed and COVID-19 case numbers trending in a positive direction, there is hope that visitation to local museums will be able to safely return in the coming months.

“We do have plans to open this year,” Stewart said, noting that the trustees are scheduled to meet soon, and some potential events for future months will be discussed. “I’m an optimist, and I have hope for a better day.”

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