2020 Editor’s Choice Awards: Innovators

Seeing is believing, right? That’s a tough ask when you’re a museum in a city on lockdown. These 22 winners, primarily traditional, hands-on attractions, creatively pivoted to virtual programming or other tactics to keep visitors entertained and engaged even during the darkest days of the pandemic. Meanwhile, others have found unique ways to cater to our new normal.

Crystal Bridges Art Museum

Aerial view of two people walking by a larger than life statue

ADDRESS: 600 Museum Way,Bentonville, AR 72712
PHONE:(479) 418-5700
WEB:Visit website

Admission to the permanent collections at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has always been free for travelers visiting the Northwest Arkansas town of Bentonville, where everything from the building’s architecture to the artwork that hangs from the walls has been hand-selected to celebrate the American spirit. But when it was forced to close its doors on March 16 due to the spread of COVID-19, the museum opened far beyond its Bentonville borders as it brought its world-renowned programming online for all to enjoy.

Founded as a nonprofit in 2005 by philanthropist and arts patron Alice Walton—the only daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton—Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art strives to unite the power of art with the beauty of nature. Over the years the museum has inspired countless programs and philanthropic initiatives, but nothing quite as inspiring as its Community Outreach Initiative during COVID-19.

Aside from launching a full-scale virtual reality project that continues to allow viewers to explore the museum galleries through 360-degree videos, the museum’s staff redistributed their resources to better serve Americans during times of social isolation. Crystal Bridges soon became an outlet for inspiration and creativity as folks in isolation took part in the museum’s online offerings, including virtually hosted tours where a gallery guide took viewers to three separate works of art in 30 minutes for a guided Zoom conversation on the pieces. Virtual art classes were led by guest artists via Zoom covering everything from the art of sketching to self-portraiture. Local youth received hundreds of donated “My Museum Kits” filled with creative projects to occupy their time in quarantine; meanwhile, children around the world were able to join in for one of the museum’s more popular Zoom calls on World Snake Day, where local herpetologist Kory Roberts helped kids identify venomous and nonvenomous species throughout the state of Arkansas. The virtual programs were so popular that many of them continue through the museum’s reopening.- Kristy Alpert

Dempsey Bakery

Three packages of baking mix from Dempsey Bakery

ADDRESS: 323 S. Cross St., Little Rock, AR 72201
PHONE:(501) 375-2257
WEB:Visit website

No one should have to live in a world without pretty cakes or celebratory treats. That’s always been the mindset of Paula Dempsey, founder of Dempsey Bakery in Little Rock, Arkansas. After years of chronic hip pain, Dempsey switched to a gluten-free diet and opened her bakery in 2011 while celebrating two years free of pain. Her downtown bakery is 100 percent gluten-free, wheat-free, soy-free, and nut-free, and offers a range of sweet treats and savory eats, including her famous dumplings, rosemary cracker bread, and hot milk cake.

A freezer full of ready-made pizza crusts, biscuits, lasagnas, and pot pies awaited Arkansans pulling in for curbside delivery during the COVID-19 closures, but when customers began peeking through the floor-to-ceiling window wall that zigs and zags along the store’s stretch of Cross Street, Dempsey had a brilliant idea. She set up long tables inside the store near the window so visitors could “window shop” to see the bakery’s latest creations and daily specials before calling in orders for the week. Before the closures, the Dempsey Bakery was one of only a handful of restaurants in Little Rock that served those suffering from food allergies, but it was during the closures that Dempsey began to serve another population of baked good aficionados.

Not wanting people to miss out on the simple pleasures of freshly baked bread, Dempsey and her team also created a line of packaged dry mixes to be shipped around the U.S. for customers to make at home—including bread, brownie, dumpling, and even iced shortbread cookie mixes. New offerings have since been added to the line, and customers around the U.S. are still—even after the store’s reopening—able to call and place orders for everything from a gluten-free snickerdoodle mix to a cheese-straw-inspired cracker mix made from a blend of tapioca flour, rice flour, and millet flour.- Kristy Alpert

Mid-America Science Museum

The sign at the entrance with flowers in front of the sign

ADDRESS: 500 Mid America Blvd., Hot Springs, AR 71913
PHONE:(501) 767-3461
WEB:Visit website

It was a sunny day when Governor Bill Clinton dedicated the Mid-America Science Museum back in April 1979, just three months after the museum first opened to the public in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The date would forever be known as “Mid-America Day,” and it was the beginning of the museum’s mission to promote STEM education through hands-on learning and interactive exhibits.

The museum has only closed its doors a handful of times over its more than 40-year tenure in Spa City, most notably after a large renovation thanks to the $7.8 million-dollar grant courtesy of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. And even when the COVID-19 closures put a halt on admissions for two months, this Smithsonian Affiliate kept an open mind and brought the museum experience online instead. Along with extending all current memberships during the closure, the museum brought viewers inside for virtual tours of the science center. It wasn’t even a week after the first closure announcement that the museum staff began hosting Facebook livestreams for parents and children to conduct at-home experiments. One of the earliest livestreams received 2,000 views, and the museum continued to pivot for their viewers by creating a website scavenger hunt and virtual summer camps.

During the entire month of March, the museum shined a light on different female employees for Women’s History Month on the museum’s Facebook page, and launched a #MuseumAtHome challenge series with fun and simple activities for kids. The museum also created community-funded Science To-Go kits for students in K-12—including materials for up to five different science activities—to help ease the transition to virtual learning. They even brought their outreach workshops to schools via Zoom for students, whether they were learning from home or in the classroom.- Kristy Alpert