For most of the George Eastman Museum’s seventy-year history, our visitors and friends have connected with our collections and programs via physical objects and spaces: the mansion and gardens, photographs or cameras in exhibitions or study rooms, screenings of films in the Dryden Theatre, library books, archival materials, and the museum’s own scholarly publications.
In recent years, to better serve our communities of interest, we have enabled digital access to our treasures. Our online databases currently include 320,000 collection objects, images of 180,000 objects, and extensive information on our library and archival holdings. Online access to our public databases has become even more vital during the pandemic; page views of our collection database increased 44 percent during the past eight weeks.
We fundamentally believe that one cannot re-create the experience of seeing an original photograph or camera, attending the screening of an archival film, or touring our historic house and gardens. Yet, with the museum closed because of the pandemic, we are able to connect with our audiences only virtually, and we have reprioritized and expanded our efforts — beyond information and images — to provide engaging digital programs.
We are thrilled by the size and national breadth of the audience our virtual events attracted within weeks of their introduction. Hundreds of people from around the world gathered virtually for curator Todd Gustavson’s presentation on Kodak cameras in April and for the panel discussion Artist–Mother–Educator, organized to accompany the Bea Nettles retrospective, in May. Recordings of both of these programs — and all of our online events — have been accessed by thousands more viewers in the short time they have been available on our website. During the past eight weeks, on social media platforms, our audience reach has increased by 40 percent, and hours viewed of our online videos have increased by 147 percent.
The aspect of the museum that may experience the longest adverse effect from the pandemic is our 500-seat Dryden Theatre, which since 1951 has presented both archival films and new motion pictures that are not widely distributed. To sustain our mission in cinema, we have initiated three new online programs: digitized films preserved by the museum, including Leo Hurwitz documentaries and screen tests for Gone with the Wind; weekly releases of new motion pictures streamed via the Virtual Dryden Theatre; and daily curator’s videos introducing movies available on streaming services.
Across curatorial areas, we have introduced online programs, including simulcast and recorded talks, presentations, and discussions by curators, scholars, and artists; our Darkroom Magic videos that demonstrate and demystify photographic processes for a general audience; behind-the-scenes videos that offer insights into many activities in the museum’s facilities that are never seen by our visitors; videos of curators discussing collection objects or artists; and virtual tours of museum exhibitions and George Eastman’s mansion and gardens, including 3D/360 tours.
Until the risks of COVID-19 have passed, to promote social distancing, the museum will need to limit docent-led group tours of exhibitions and the mansion and gardens. Therefore, when the museum reopens, we will create enhanced audio tours and podcasts — featuring artists, curators, and docents — that interpret and supplement what our visitors are seeing in person.
This fall, we will complete our Silver Voices project to digitize, and make available online, archival recordings, including dozens of audio interviews with leading actors and directors from cinema’s early decades and key figures in American photography; nearly two hundred hours of audio recordings of photography conferences and workshops at the museum during a 35-year period; and scores of interviews of leading conservators and photochemical engineers on the theory and practice of photograph conservation. We plan to create audio and video introductions to provide context and interpretation for this trove of oral histories.
The indefinitely long closures of the museum and Dryden Theatre place a significant strain on the museum’s finances. We have made a great effort to retain employees by redirecting work to digital initiatives and other projects. New York State designated the security and preservation of our collections and National Historic Landmark as an essential business, allowing some employees to continue to work onsite. Most museum employees can be productive while working remotely.
Our staff has been tremendously creative, resourceful, and flexible in collaborating to create new online experiences for our communities. I am hopeful and determined that our new digital initiatives will be sustainable and will permanently transform the George Eastman Museum’s ability to reach a larger and broader audience across the country and around the world.
I wish you and your loved ones health, equanimity, and good spirits during this difficult time.
Bruce Barnes, PhD
Ron and Donna Fielding Director