The Littleton Museum's farms are fairly quiet these days.
On the 39-acre living history farms portraying life in pioneer-era Littleton, the blacksmith's hammer seldom rings against an anvil. Rarely does kindling crackle in the Bemis House's iron stove. There's no clopping of Clydesdales' hooves on festival day hayrides.
Hit hard by COVID-era restrictions and budget cuts, the museum — one of the crown jewels of Littleton's cultural offerings — begins 2021 denuded, but led by a determined, innovative staff dedicated to carrying on the mission of connecting people with the past — and building back stronger for the future.
When COVID struck last March, shuttering the museum to the public for four months, staff quickly turned their attention to online offerings.
“It's amazing how quick you move when you have to,” said Tim Nimz, the museum's director. “We had an art exhibit scheduled to open the week after we closed down. Two days after it was supposed to open, we had our first-ever virtual tour up online. We suddenly realized we may not know exactly what we're doing, but it's an opportunity to stretch our muscles.”
In the months that followed, several staff were furloughed as plunging local sales tax revenue hit city government.
Still, the museum produced a variety of online content, including how-to lessons from historical interpreters, virtual tours of art exhibits, and a popular video series called “Ask Farmer Steve.”
Clobbered by cuts
Despite the innovation, the ripple effects of COVID clobbered the museum.
By the end of the year, the museum was down seven employees. One historical interpreter was laid off, and another took early retirement, accounting for half of the paid interpretation staff. The curator of interpretation resigned. Layoffs and early retirement also took three front desk staff and a custodian.
From a height of 21 full-time-equivalent positions before the pandemic, the museum was left with 15 employees — too few to keep the farm buildings open to the public.
Hours of operation were cut from 47 a week to just 30 — so few that the museum's accreditation through the American Alliance of Museums would have been threatened had the agency not adjusted their criteria for pandemic-battered institutions.
Visitation, which had climbed as high as 160,000 in recent years, plunged to around 25,000 in 2020 — and donations plunged with it.
As of early January the sprawling main museum building — home to exhibits on Littleton history, two temporary exhibit galleries, a theater and multipurpose rooms — remains closed to the public.
Though the museum grounds remain open by appointment, the farm buildings are still locked.
The 2021 events season, including summer camps and concerts, is still yet to be determined.
Still, Nimz is keeping his chin up.
“Yes, our ability to deliver service has been reduced, but that doesn't reduce the quality of the service we provide,” he said. “We're still an important place to help families rebalance their lives. There's a hunger for places to go, for educational content, and we're still providing that.”
Reshuffling the deck
Meanwhile, the museum's place in the City of Littleton's organizational structure has seen a reshuffling.
As layoffs and early retirements rippled through city government, leaving several departments without heads, City Manager Mark Relph reorganized the city's organizational chart in late 2020.
Nimz, who for the past eight years had been the director of both the museum and Bemis Library, was reassigned to strictly oversee the museum — the job for which he was originally hired in 2002. Deputy library director Nancy Trimm was appointed to head the library.
Both the library and museum were placed under the purview of Kelli Narde, the city's longtime communications director, whose title is now Director of Cultural and Media Services.
In its first 2021 meeting, city council unanimously ratified a pair of resolutions reshuffling several boards overseen by the library and museum. The resolutions eliminated the library and museum boards, folding their duties into the Littleton Arts and Cultural Commission, which was expanded from nine members to 11.
Overall, Narde called the reshuffling a positive evolution.
“Communications, the library and museum are the most public-facing departments in the city,” she said. “It just makes sense. We can coordinate and share resources on exhibits, events, marketing, video and all this digital programming we're doing now.”
Narde said city leadership hopes and plans to rebuild the museum to full strength, but it will take time.
“With this level of staffing, the museum just can't be open at the levels it was before, even once we get COVID under better control,” she said. “That said, the city didn't finish 2020 in as bad of shape as we thought we might. It could've been worse.”
Build back better
Narde is working with Nimz and other officials to brainstorm new revenue streams to better support the museum.
One idea: an admission fee for non-residents.
“This is one of the only museums in our entire region that doesn't charge for entry,” she said. “Residents should still get in free. The taxpayers of Littleton have paid for this facility and should get to use the heck out of it, but I think out-of-town visitors would tolerate a nominal fee. Frankly, I think a lot of people are surprised there's no admission fee as-is.”
Another idea: more events.
“I don't want to let the cat out of the bag yet," she said, "but we're talking about things more like art receptions.”
Though the idea has been floated in years past, Narde said she did not foresee pushing for the museum grounds to be used as a large-scale wedding or event venue.
Supporting the museum has a larger purpose too, she said: it's a linchpin of longer-term efforts to market Littleton as a regional tourist destination.
Although Visit Littleton, a pilot project to boost local tourism, is largely dormant in the COVID era, Narde said the museum could be a big draw.
“If you have to come to the Denver metro area, why not stay in Littleton? While you're here, why not eat in our restaurants? Why not take your kids to our museum?”
Relph, the city manager, said Littleton is somewhat unique in still operating a city-run museum and a library that hasn't been absorbed by a regional district.
“There's a financial commitment there that's pretty deep, but I don't see us pursuing a separation from the city any time in the foreseeable future,” Relph said. “The connection to the community is just too close and too deep.”
Relph said he has been impressed by the new digital offerings from the library and museum.
“I couldn't be more proud of how they have stepped up,” he said.
Will the city be able to bring the museum back to full strength?
“The short answer is yes,” Relph said. “The service might change in the long view. We're trying to react to what the community wants and needs going forward. It may not look like it did a year ago. What can we do better? But that said, we definitely want that museum back at what we consider full service.”
Narde said she understands that the museum is an easy target for cuts in tough times.
“This isn't law enforcement,” she said. “It's not snow plowing. It's not maintaining the sewers. But it's at the heart of quality of life in Littleton. It will adapt. It will thrive.”
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