Old Salem president reenvisions historic site due to COVID

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Just leave it to a self-professed “history nerd” to figure out ways to get through the nation’s worst health crisis in more than 100 years!

Frank Vagnone is the president of Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, the nationally-recognized historic site honoring and preserving the lifestyle and contributions of the Moravians who settled in this area in 1766.

It’s a place that’s been closed to the general public since the pandemic broke out in early March. But it’s not really “closed” in the traditional sense. Vagnone calls it, “open, but different.” More on that in a few paragraphs.

But first —

“So many of our colleagues in other countries were letting us know what was happening there,” Vagnone told me during a virtual interview recently. “All I had to do was pull out information about the Spanish Flu and not only notice the first wave, but notice the second wave.”

So early on, Vagnone and his team — in true Moravian style — got “scientific.” They studied sneeze patterns and how far possible virus-carrying droplets can travel after someone sneezes.

They determined many of Old Salem’s inside venues were just too small to keep visitors and staff safe during guided tours. It’s among the reasons Old Salem decided not to reopen those buildings when North Carolina moved into the reopening phase that allowed museums to reopen.

“We knew we were not going to be open for traditional interpreted tours. Se we just changed. We became completely online,” Vagnone said.

This includes the new online video platform “Exploratorium.”

“Exploratorium” is designed to serve thousands of students and teachers who had to cancel their field trips to Old Salem.

Another emphasis: much of what you could buy on-site at Old Salem (including Moravian cookies and stars) is now online at the Old Salem Virtual Store.

Certainly, this is not generating the income ticket and merchandise sales did pre-pandemic. And Old Salem’s made some tough decisions. For instance, it had 137 employees prior to Covid. Now it has 71.

But —

“We’re having greater public engagement with our online programming, and some of our online programming is bringing in greater revenue than some of our in-person programs,” Vagnone said. “It’s not as though we’re breaking even because we’re not. We’re going to have a deficit at the end of the year. But our goal is to reduce the deficit as much as possible.”

COVID has also allowed Old Salem to experiment with new ways of doing things.

The new “Salem Pathways” is a new way to help visitors tour exterior parts of the grounds by themselves.

By taking their smartphones and scanning QR codes through the property, visitors can follow the paths of seven different historic figures who actually lived in Old Salem.

Old Salem has also continued the “give back” spirit of the Moravians by keeping the gardens growing and the Winkler Bakery running and donating the vegetables and bread to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwestern North Carolina.

Speaking of the Moravians, their responses to epidemics of the past, including smallpox and the Spanish Flu of 1918, are well-documented.

“The Moravians were incredibly innovative,” Vagnone said. “They were very medically-advanced. You saw it with the smallpox epidemics early on. They were the first ones in North Carolina to take the vaccine! They quarantined.”

“I see our kind of re-envisioning Old Salem and the financial aspects right in line with what the Moravians would have done. They did what they had to do to survive and not only survive but fulfill their mission.”

“In their case, their mission was to fuel missionary work internationally. Ours is to present history for local and national audiences. Having a kind of openness about thinking in non-traditional ways has been the saving grace for Old Salem.”

Spoken like a true “history nerd!”

For more information on Old Salem Museums and Gardens including all its online offerings, click here.

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