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Navigating Unchartered Waters: Reimagining Exhibitions, Collections and Access during a Pandemic

*This is the latest in a series of articles featuring musical instrument collections and the procedures and programs they have instituted during the global Covid-19 pandemic. As of this posting, the National Music Centre has once again been closed due to viral spread in the province of Alberta.

By Jesse Moffatt

As a founding member of the National Music Centre (NMC) collections and exhibitions team, I am working alongside my colleagues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to significantly alter the operations of the entire cultural sector. Having to close, reopen, then close again has had its challenges, but our goal has always been to remain adaptable to an ever-changing situation.

Our goal since the pandemic first impacted NMC nine months ago, has been to stay positive, adapt to the ever-changing environment, use this time to experiment with new things, and constantly reevaluate and re-imagine our future. In doing so, we took three critical steps to date that have assisted us in navigating these uncharted waters.

Back to basics

On March 17th, NMC was mandated to close its doors alongside all other province wide museums. In April, we reduced our team by 77%, then spent months pivoting and planning for our eventual reopening.

The health and safety of all the people entering and visiting Studio Bell have always been a top priority. During this time of COVID-19 we developed countless new precautions and measures to help visitors feel safe and to enable them to safely engage with our collections and exhibitions while visiting our facility.

In the months leading up to reopening, the team worked to develop COVID-19 wayfinding and health signage. In fact, we created ninety unique designs and over 500 pieces of physical distancing/wayfinding/positive messages that we installed to safely guide visitors through our facility and exhibitions.

Floor graphics depicting directional arrows and physical distancing and positive messaging reminders were installed on all active floors. Gentle reminders for visitors to play their part during the Pandemic were included.

All high touch points were minimized, we reprogramed over 65 touch screens to non-participatory slide shows of music Fun Facts that run on the exhibit kiosks in lieu of the touch-interactivity. The Fun Facts are curated specifically for each gallery and grab attention with eye-catching colours and frequent changes.

We had fun developing our own version of a sanitization station, made out of a hi-hat stand. Stations were strategically placed on each stairwell landing, elevator lobbies and gallery entrances. All soft seating was also removed and replaced with seating that could be easily disinfected.

We developed and tested new COVID protocols for safe and responsible access to our vast collection of “living” musical instrument collections. Access to Collections and use of our recording facilities included strict protocols such as quarantining collection items for up to seven days before they could be used again. Data provided by CDC shows Covid-19 virus can remain on instrument surfaces for up to 5 days depending on the materials surface

Isolating unmasked singers and limiting performance times to 30 mins, followed by a 10 min break for any audience based performances.

Gradual reopening of Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre

We reopened Studio Bell on Saturday, August 15th on weekends only, with pre-booked timed ticketed entry. Enhanced cleaning schedules were employed in accordance with Alberta Health requirements.

Due to health and safety restrictions we reimagined our exhibitions as a self-directed experience with no guided tours, limited programing and expanded directional signage. The shift was not an easy one, but we took our time as we reimagined our facility. A facility that was designed to be explored in any direction and in no particular order. Pre COVID, visitors would freely explore the stunning architecture as they experienced our 21 theme-based exhibition spaces.

For reopening, we also developed a self-guided Cross-Country Music Road Trip tour that highlights music stories from provinces and territories across the country, encouraging visitors to navigate through the exhibitions by snapping a photo of the large-scale map as they arrive. Maple leaf stickers throughout the exhibits mark the tour stops.

Pivot to Digital

We transitioned the NMC experience to a digital format through a combination of education, collections, exhibitions and performance initiatives. We created a new online learning series, launched our first digital exhibition, and turned our facility into a sound stage to record and stream new and exciting content in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. These projects allowed us to reach audiences who may not feel comfortable returning to public spaces just yet.

2020 Barney Bentall Cariboo Express national broadcast stream, hosted by Ron Mclean. Live from NMC performance Hall.

NMC partnered with three of Alberta’s music industry organizations, The Alberta Music Industry Association (Alberta Music), CKUA Radio Network, and Stagehand – to showcase Alberta’s diverse talent and provide support for artists. The ALBERTA SPOTLIGHT online series is meant to connect Albertans across the province with music during these times of physical distancing. Over the past number of months we captured and released 80 video performances from a diverse array of Alberta artists. Visit Alberta Spotlight series here.

Speak Up! exhibition showcasing Indigenous artists who have, or are, making a social impact on a local, regional, or national level—motivating a new generation to take action and offering a better understanding of where they come from. Visit Speak Up! online exhibition here.

A new ‘Learning at Home’ digital education program, featuring our education program leader, Evan Rothery uses edutainment to connect science and sound as online resources for teachers, music enthusiasts and children alike. Visit NMC Learning at Home series here.

As we find ourselves on the eve of another province wide lock down beginning on Dec 13th, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the last nine months have been a whirlwind of activity. In some ways, the experience has made us more resilient and united as a team and has opened up new opportunities, accelerating our vision as an organization to use music as a catalyst to build a better country and world. At the root of it, let’s use music to play a critical role in our recovery. It’s the one universal tool that can help us manage, nurture, soothe, cope and in some cases heal.


Jesse Moffatt is the Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Jesse is also a past member of the Board of Governors of AMIS.



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