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Construction During a Pandemic: How the National Museum of Racing Reimagined its Visitor Experience

October 28, 2020 11:38 AM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (NMRHoF) was uniquely situated when the COVID-19 pandemic forced museums across New York State to close their doors to the public back in March. The Museum had already closed to the public on December 29, 2019 to undertake a massive, multimillion dollar construction project to transform the Hall of Fame visitor experience. Despite a two month delay and the challenges of working remotely because of the pandemic, the Museum kept its audience engaged and utilized the entire staff to work on projects that reimagined the museum.

Most visitors to the museum are horse racing enthusiasts, drawn to the trophy exhibits. There are also sporting arts aficionados who flock to the Martin Stainforth exhibit. Stainforth is a British-born artist who began his career as a wood engraver before turning to illustration. He moved to the United States in the mid-1920s and continued to capture the likenesses of some of the top racehorses of the era, including Hall of Fame legend Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner Omaha. Other visitors enjoy the interactive exhibitions and the racing footage. 

The Museum’s last major renovation to its permanent collection was twenty years ago and the Hall of Fame had remained untouched since 1988. Back in August 2018, museum staff planned a $20 million renovation project for the Hall of Fame that would incorporate new technologies that would allow the museum to highlight its 459 inductees through a multimedia experience. An internal team of staff members from the development, curatorial, and Hall of Fame departments worked with the Board of Trustees on all aspects of the project. “When you undergo a closure and renovation, you want to make sure that everyone is on board with the changes being made and that it will benefit the institution for generations to come,” said Victoria Reisman, Museum Curator. That conversation started with a Sunday morning walk through the museum with Museum President John Hendrickson, Collections & Exhibits Committee Chair Sally Jeffords, and Director Cate Masterson. The Hall of Fame was quickly running out of space for plaques and the museum looked to switching to digital plaques. 

“Our Hall of Fame is unique in that we sometimes have inductees (trainers, jockeys) that remain active in the sport after the time of their induction,” said Reisman. The Hall of Fame switched from physical plaques to digital screens. The digital plaques offer an in-depth multimedia look at the lives and careers of each member in the hall of fame. “By switching to digital plaques, it allows the Museum to update immediately the recent statistics and career milestones of our active Hall of Fame members and to upload photographs, artwork, and video footage to celebrate their achievements.”

Just outside the Hall of Fame is the new Race Day Gallery. “Our goal was to build excitement for the Hall of Fame theatrical experience and celebrate the sport of Thoroughbred Racing from coast to coast,” said Reisman. New exhibition cases provide more room for the Museum to display the25,000 objects in its collection, including many artifacts that had never been exhibited to the public before. The gallery space is an immersive experience with sights and sounds that mimic a race day experience, from the paddock to the track in the winner’s circle. 

Inside the new Race Day Gallery

In addition to the Hall of Fame renovation project, staff also looked at other areas throughout the museum that could be renovated and improved while the museum was closed to the public. This laid the groundwork for the museum’s “Permanent Collection Galleries Refresh” project. “Many of my colleagues are avid museum-goers, so we brought all of our own experiences to the table when discussing how to transform the Hall of Fame and refresh the entire Museum for our reopening this year.” 

The theatrical experience at the Kentucky Derby Museum, a 360-degree film, was a source of inspiration for the NMRHOF presentation, “What It Takes: Journey to the Hall of Fame.” The Museum worked with Donna Lawrence Productions, the same producers who made the Derby Museum’s film to create a unique, immersive movie experience. “The Baseball Hall of Fame and other Halls of Fame also provided inspiration on how to best document the history of the sport and celebrate those who achieve the pinnacle of success using technology and exhibit design strategies,” said Reisman. She also took time during closure to rewrite exhibit labels throughout the permanent collection galleries and repainted gallery spaces. “Personally, I’ve been a big fan of the recent museum trend of reintroducing color into exhibit galleries and moving away from the ‘white cube’ aesthetic and used this opportunities to embrace bold colors for our permanent collection galleries and make our art and artifacts stand out.” The colors also help define each gallery space. “Our goal was to improve wayfinding through increased signage and the addition of color to these exhibit spaces,” said Reisman. “Most of of the artwork and artifacts on display remained the same, but we used our temporary closure to add title signage and a bold wall color to make each galley space stand out from the next.” The Museum rebranded these spaces from “Colonial Through Twentieth Century galleries” to “Racing Through History” to emphasize the connection between the United States’ history and the history of Thoroughbred Racing. 

Jockey uniforms on display in the new Race Day Gallery

Working in a Pandemic

While some projects were unaffected by the pandemic, like HVAC system upgrades, the temporary work shutdown delayed the construction project by two months. Travel restrictions impacted vendors, but the Museum was able to adjust the work schedule and switched to local vendors when out-of-state contractors were unable to return to New York.  Working with vendors remotely during construction wasn’t that much different than if staff had been on-site. “We had a team of professionals from across the country—from film producers to lighting specialists to exhibit fabricators and media designers—working on the Hall of Fame Education Experience, so we were already used to Zoom meetings and conference calls before our work-from-home period began,” said Reisman. “The necessity of working remotely due to the pandemic increased the importance of documentation and meeting minutes to make sure that everything was being addressed and that nothing was missed. Once we could get back on track and return to the Museum, our entire staff worked together to make sure we were ready to open on this year’s Kentucky Derby Day, September 5th.” The biggest challenge was adjusting the installation timeline in order to complete all of the exhibit projects safely and on time, while following COVID-19 protocols. 

Keeping Public Engagement

Throughout closure, the Museum embraced the #MuseumFromHome initiative across their social media channels. Reisman also started a new social media campaign, #HistoryThroughArt. “It highlights one work from the collection and pairs it with additional online resources to encourage our followers to learn more about the subject featured.” Collections Manager Stephanie Luce created a coloring book based on objects from the collection. Museum Educator Lindsay Doyle transitioned the annual student art show to a digital format and released downloadable educational resources, including a new STEM education kit for 3rd grade students. Membership and Development Officer Maureen Mahoney kept members and supporters updated throughout construction with a digital newsletter.”

Staff returned to the Museum in late June and started hosting virtual programming on Zoom and Facebook including a behind the scenes sneak peek of the new exhibits and renovations. “Our virtual programming also included children’s educational activities, farm tours, racing previews, and more… we hope to expand these offerings to include virtual tours of the museum in the future, starting with a Secretariat-themed tour this month.”

After Reopening

Since reopening to the public, visitors have enjoyed the museum’s new signature film in the Hall of Fame as well as all of the new interactive experiences. Of course there is social distancing signage throughout the space as well as strategically placed hand sanitizers and small styluses on keychains with the Museum’s logo provided to guests free of charge to help safely interact with the new exhibitions.

“People have enjoyed exploring the new Hall of Fame interactives and the artifacts relating to racetracks from across the country in our new Race Day Gallery, while our ‘Women in Racing’ exhibition remains a favorite amongst new and returning visitors,” said Reisman. 

Reflecting on the Process

“Don’t underestimate the time it takes to prepare your digital image and video assets for a new interactive exhibit,” said Reisman reflecting back on the last nine months. “One of the best things about our new Hall of Fame interactive plaques is that we can showcase more resources from our collection to illustrate the Hall of Fame careers of our inductees. However, the scanning, editing, formatting, and caption writing process to prepare these digital assets takes an incredible amount of time.” The museum’s curatorial team was able to scan most of the photographic prints before staff began working from home in March. Staff was also able to format the photos and captions while working remotely using their new Hall of Fame Content Management System. “It was a huge undertaking, but also a much-needed project that will increase the usability of collection resources for future exhibits.”

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