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People walk past the Museum of History on March 14, 2020 in Gatineau, Que.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

At the Sidney Museum in Sidney, B.C., staff have had to close their annual Lego show and cancel its March Break scavenger hunt, the biggest money-makers of the year for a local history museum where admission is by donation. At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) an exhibition of mummies on loan from the British Museum was supposed to be shipped to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto at the end of the month, but is now stuck indefinitely in Quebec. And at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on the Halifax waterfront, the doors are closed and the cruise-ship passengers will not be strolling by this spring – but the public can still check out Merlin the parrot on the museum’s webcam.

Facing unprecedented closings during their busy spring season, museums across Canada are juggling exhibition schedules and scrambling to advertise their digital offerings as they watch the losses mount. At the MMFA, director Nathalie Bondil said the museum’s 2019-2020 budget will be in the black when the fiscal year ends this month, but as for 2020-21: “Who knows?” On top of the loss of revenue from visitors, losses in the stock market may make it difficult to find sponsors for future programming, she added.

The museums are reluctant to complain publicly about the problem and will not predict how much money they are losing – the directors of the ROM, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of History all declined to be interviewed for this story – but their professional associations are starting to warn governments that financial help will be needed.

“There are no more visitors, therefore there is no more revenue,” said Vanda Vitali, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association, adding that some institutions were already considering layoffs. “Museums are employers, too.”

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A sign on the front door of the Museum of History indicates its indefinite closure.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The CMA issued a public letter to the federal government this week calling for a dedicated relief fund for museums forced to close owing to COVID-19, and also for new money for digital activities. Many larger museums maintain databases featuring highlights of their collections and mount online exhibitions, but it is often too costly for smaller institutions to provide any significant online access to their art and artifacts.

“People are a bit shell-shocked right now,” said Ryan Hunt, executive director of the B.C. Museums Association. He predicted that more museums would up their web presence next week. The association is about to launch an online hub that will compile all the digital offerings available from B.C. museums, including the Royal BC Museum’s learning portal and Google Street View tours of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The association is also working with other arts groups in British Columbia to survey both artists and institutions so the sector can present hard numbers to the provincial government about the loss of revenue.

As museums across the country consider how to keep in touch with their absent visitors, they are also busy setting up remote work for their staff. That was a task that took on particular urgency at the MMFA this week, when the museum was informed that a worker at one of the non-profit agencies it plays host to in its Sherbrooke Street headquarters had COVID-19. The museum, which had closed to the public on Saturday, began to close its offices to staff Wednesday; several employees who had met with the infected individual are now self-isolating.

“People are very professional. We all understand we must be cautious of the well-being of employees as well as the public,” Bondil said.

Meanwhile, the museum is posting a daily cultural activity on its Facebook page, and waiting for better days.

“This is an unprecedented time, but we just have to be wise and patient and we will reopen to the public this spring,” Bondil said, adding “I hope in six months, we will just have memories.”

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