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Sunday, November 28, 2021
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History never stops, and neither does Matheson History Museum.

The local museum was awarded $30,782 from the National Endowment for the Humanities Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act grant, said executive director Dixie Neilson. She added that the CARES grant, created to support cultural institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, wasn’t easy to obtain.

There were more than 2,000 applications nationwide, but the program only funded about 350 institutions, Neilson said. The application process began in early May. The museum heard it won the grant June 17 but didn’t know the amount of funding until earlier this week.

Only 13 percent of applicants received funding from the grant, said Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney, a curator of collections at the museum. Matheson History Museum was one out of six museums in Florida to obtain the award.

The museum received all the funding it asked for except $300, Neilson said. The program also didn’t require the museum to match the funds, or have a company offer the same amount of funding to the museum as the federal program offered.

The museum plans to use the funds to hire two part-time employees, share the permanent collection online and update the database and inventory, Hof-Mahoney said.

The grant comes at a time of desperation, when many museums are struggling to stay alive.

A press release from The American Alliance of Museums shared the findings of a survey of more than 750 museum directors on the statuses of their museums during the pandemic. One-third of the directors surveyed said there was a significant risk they wouldn’t reopen by next fall, and more than half have less than six months of financial operating reserves remaining.

The survey also found that three-quarters of museums developed virtual educational programs to open experiences to the public.

Because entrance to the Matheson is free, the museum hasn’t lost any money in entrance fees since closing in March, Hof-Mahoney said. However, it relies on grants and donations to cover its yearly expenses, which hover around $250,000 — a large chunk of which is used to keep the museum’s four buildings operational.

The museum’s timetable for opening back up to the public is still up in the air, Hof-Mahoney added.

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With only two full-time staff members, Matheson is significantly smaller than the Cade Museum, the Harn Museum and the Florida Museum of Natural History, which have all reopened to varying degrees. Hof-Mahoney said that the Matheson doesn’t have the manpower to do the kind of cleaning that it would take to ensure the safety of both its staff and its visitors.

The museum currently has three digital exhibits on its website: “Trailblazers: 150 Years of Alachua County Women,” a COVID-19 Community Archive and “McCarthy Moment: The Johns Committee in Florida.” The COVID-19 community archive is a collection of stories submitted by Alachua County residents focused on their experiences during the pandemic.

Museum staff hope to work on the COVID-19 community archive and put together a virtual speaker series in the Fall, Hof-Mahoney said. The virtual speaker series plans to highlight African-American stories from the community, Hof-Mahoney said. Although there isn’t a set date yet, the first speaker will be Alachua County’s first poet laureate Stanley Richardson.

“We always want to share our objects with the public,” Neilson said. “This is one of our missions, why we are here.”

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