Curating in the time of COVID

“When one door closes, another opens.” Most may know this saying but not be aware that it was attributed to Alexander Graham Bell on his deathbed, or that there is a second half to the quote: “but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

It was exceedingly difficult for the NSLM to close its doors to the public just a few weeks after opening of Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration by American artist Jamie Wyeth. The inspiring exhibition organized by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, is exactly the type of uplifting experience that brings hope and inspiration, especially in a time when we all crave positivity and happy distractions from the world around us.

Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration virtual tour

It also quickly became clear that we would be unable to complete the inbound shipments to open the April 2020 exhibition, The Thrill of the ‘Chace: Steeplechase in Art. We had aligned it with the 100th anniversary of the Middleburg Spring Races to celebrate and examine the sport, its art, and its history. After all, that is the mission of the National Sporting Library & Museum, to promote, preserve, and share the literature, art, and culture of equestrian, angling, and field sports.

The best laid plans of mice and men… the entire spring Museum schedule crumbled within weeks. The much-anticipated reveal of the magnificent additions to the permanent collection of two rare one-third life-size sculptures, Percheron Mare: Messaline and Foal and Percheron Stallion: Rhum by Herbert Haseltine (American, 1877 –1962) was no longer possible. They remained in storage as we worked from home. Another important and generous donation also was still off view: two works by Frank Weston Benson and three by Ogden Minton Pleissner. The Librarians’ Angling in Special Collections exhibit lay dormant in the Forrest E. Mars Exhibit Hall.

Angling in Special Collections online Library exhibition

A growing sense of disappointment, sadness, and loss loomed overhead as we contemplated the doors that had closed, the duration of the closures, and the reality of extended limited access to the exhibition experience as we knew it. We are an organization that by its very definition exists to serve its community. At all levels we thought about what we could do. How would we be able to continue to connect remotely and with strategic visits to campus?

We learned… quickly. We “pivoted” as the industry calls it. Executive Director Elizabeth von Hassell led with calm and kindness and was a conduit for all. Development Associate Lauren O’Neill recorded several videos of Collections Manager Lauren Kraut and myself highlighting artwork in the galleries just before the Executive Order to close was announced. George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian Michelle Guzman managed IT needs as we set up our virtual office in Microsoft Teams and learned to Zoom. Associate Director of Development Reid O’Connor coordinated person-to-person calls and letters to our community. Facilities Manager Aaron Patten took advantage of the closure and coordinated a much needed comprehensive, building-wide HVAC upgrade in the Library. Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator Valerie Peacock found online tour platforms and recorded educational content.  Mars Technical Services Librarian Erica Libhart learned how to use Adobe Spark. I (happily) jumped into 360° photography. We ramped up what we were already doing on social media and Marketing Manager Jody West revamped the website.

Leading the Field: Ellen Emmet Rand virtual tour

The results were an impressive amount of content in a short window: a virtual tour of Ellen Emmet Rand: Leading the Field, the Wyeth exhibition, and the permanent collection; an online exhibition of Angling in Special Collections; an NSLM YouTube channel, virtual Sunday Sketch, and virtual Coffee with the Curator. Through this time, we stayed in touch with our members and followers and made new friends across the globe.

What does the future hold? We are committed to continuing to connect online with virtual interactions, and we look forward to reopening our physical doors on Friday, July 17, with limited ticketed access. The number one priority is safety, so the museum experience and new exhibit designs will look a little bit different with physical distancing measures in place.

In Bronze: Herbert Haseltine opens Friday, July 17

What will you see in-person and have access to online? Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration has been extended through January 3, 2021. In Bronze: Herbert Haseltine and the Pleissner and Benson acquisitions, curated by Lauren Kraut, will be on view through August 23. We are excited to rescheduled Thrill of the ‘Chace to open September 9.  

The “new normal” calls for flexibility and a can-do spirit. I am proud to be a member of this small and mighty team. When one door closed, we have found ways to open others. The show must (and will) go on.


Claudia Pfeiffer is the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at


Leave a Comment

  1. Kudos to you Claudia and all the staff at NSLM! It has been tough for so many of us, but new doors have opened! Cannot wait to Haseltine! And the Wyeth exhibit is a must for all!

    Sandy Danielson, Executive Director-Artists in Middleburg


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