‘The Culture of Kentucky for People in Kentucky:’ Small Museums Work to Remain Open During Pandemic

Aug 27, 2020

Small museums across Kentucky are a vital part of the state's tourism industry. Like so many other institutions, these specialized museums are facing the challenges of remaining open and serving the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small museums across the commonwealth spotlight a numbers of Kentucky’s favorite activities, such as motorsports, basketball, and music. 

On a recent morning at the Muhlenberg Music Museum in Central City, Freddie Mayes played some of the most popular songs of Everly Brothers on the jukebox, including Wake Up Little Susie and Dream.

"This is a 1953 model jukebox that’s been restored," said Mayes. "It’s loaded with the 45s of the Everly Brothers music, all of their gold records are there." 

Mayes is Executive Director of the Tourism Commission of Central City, a town that celebrates the local musical roots of the Everly family, and the legendary harmonies of brothers Don and Phil.

He said the museum highlights several musicians of different genres who have connections to Muhlenberg County.

"Merle Travis is country and rockabilly and guitar playing. John Prine is Americana and songwriting. Jim Walker is classical and jazz flute and now teaches master flute all over the world. Jim was born, I think, in Muncie, Indiana, but he was raised here. His father was the high school band director for Central City."

Mayes said before COVID-19, visitors came from all over.

"In the past six years, we’ve had guests from 49 different states and 17 different countries. Hawaii is the only state we don't show we've had a visitor from," said Mayes.

But he said during the pandemic, people are staying closer to home.  

"Kentucky, Indiana Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri--all those folks have been here recently, and they’re looking for relatively small crowds, safe environment," said Mayes. "We’ll have eight or 10 visitors per day, which is actually comparable to what we’ve always been."

According to Mayes, COVID-19 has impacted the main funding source for the museum.

"Typically, our funding comes from hotel occupancy. That has been good in our community until recently. There have been projects in the area that brought people into our hotels," he said. "Since the pandemic that has fallen off significantly."

There’s no admission fee and visitors can get two different experiences, because the same building also houses the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum, with about 30 cars.

"We have actually an assortment of cars that go from the Soap Box Derby to Indy cars and everything in-between," he said. "These are all Kentucky connected cars. Either the drivers, the owners, the mechanics, you know, the race teams, they were all Kentucky related. 

Another specialty museum working to keep the doors open during the pandemic is the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown, which honors more than 100 players and coaches.

Community Director Kenny Henderson said before the pandemic, it was open four days a week for walk-in visitors, and also provided scheduled tours for basketball teams and other groups. 

Ken Henderson is Community Director for the t Dr. Mark and Cindy Lynn Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown.
Credit Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame

"We had a Basketball Hall of Fame Classic last year to kick off basketball season," said Henderson. "We had 16 teams, and every one of those teams got to visit the Hall of Fame."

The museum closed in March, due to the shutdown of most of the economy caused by COVID-19, and reopened July 3.

"Now we're on a two-day schedule and we're just trying to open up gradually here to keep everybody safe and secure," said Henderson. "We wanted to have the opportunity to open up and for people to come in and visit the Hall of Fame. Of course, we’re doing CDC guidelines. We do social distancing. We’ve got hand sanitizers. We’re wearing masks when you visit the hall.

Henderson said the Hall of Fame gets some revenue from a small admission fee, but now it’s mainly donations from supporters keeping it afloat.

"Hopefully, when this pandemic goes away, it will pick up business again and be like it was, and maybe better," said Henderson.

President and CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association, Hank Phillips, said the pandemic has resulted in cuts in hours, staff, volunteers and visitors at small museums across the commonwealth. 

"It's a very, very difficult time for them, which is so sad and regrettable because they are such an important part of, both from a tourism standpoint and the assets we offer to visitors, the experiences are wonderful at our small museums," said Phillips. "They also play an important part in the culture of Kentucky for people in Kentucky." 

While staying operational amid the pandemic is a challenges, Phillips said small museums do have at least one advantage in recovering from the crisis.

"One of the things that could be a hopeful sign for smaller museums is that the people who tend to travel earliest, besides just those who want to take a shorter trip, another first wave tends to come from people who have special interests," said Phillips. "Well, small museums represent special interests."

Phillips said those special interests will slowly, but surely, help to revive the  devasted, but not defeated, travel industry, an industry enriched by the small, specialty museums of Kentucky.