Managing a Museum While Parenting: Laura and Hank Hine Share Their COVID-19 Perspective

One of the things that defines St. Petersburg is its museums. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit our shores, the thought of closing down these landmark institutions seemed incredible, but what was impossible to imagine in early March soon became the new reality. Even so, as these cornerstones of our community sat dark, the creative people at the helm were busy.

One local couple keeping the pulse alive was Laura and Hank Hine. The two are powerhouses in the museum scene. Hank has been the director of  The Dali Museum since 2002, leading it from its days on 3rd Street S. through the campaign to build its now-iconic home adjacent to the Mahaffey Performing Arts Center.

Laura Hine took over the helm of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in 2019, but her involvement with the museum dates back much further. She was part of the team overseeing the unlikely conversion of a downtown Mediterranean Revival parking garage into the beautiful facility it is today with a decidedly cool, southwest feel.

As the pandemic took hold and stay-at-home orders were put into place, Hank and Laura had to step up to the challenge of not only turning their home into an office, but also a school. Their sons, Stuart (9) and Garret (5), attend North Shore Elementary, which of course, had also temporarily closed its doors. That meant mom and dad not only had to continue managing their respective museums, but also they got a trial-by-fire in homeschooling. To say it was surreal was an understatement.

While keeping a socially distant eight feet apart, I talked with Hank and Laura on the front porch of their home at 16th Ave NE about what it was like to keep the museums ‘open’ virtually, while also overseeing their sons’ daily school work. Pinellas County schools might be closed, but learning was continuing digitally.

Laura and Hank have taken a team approach to teaching at home, making sure to share the load, and not to schedule conflicting Zoom business meetings. Laura said that at first, she had to check her expectations. “I thought we needed to start school right at 8:45am because that’s when school starts,” said Laura. “But, I soon realized that I need some time in the morning to get some work done. You have to be flexible.”

Flexibility is definitely called for, whether in dealing with their children’s education or piloting a museum through a pandemic. The Hines take a calm, thoughtful approach and they both commend their staffs for doing a great job reaching out to the community. “Our first priority has been our employees,” Laura said. “Our team has been focused on reaching out to our founding members.”

Museums are built to be experienced in person. But, as COVID-19 unfolded, Hank and Laura and their teams switched to online programming that could serve as a virtual escape for sheltering-at-home art lovers. Usually, this type of project would take months of planning and execution. There wasn’t time for that.

Laura oversaw the launch of The James Museum From Home, online programming updated weekly with different themes ranging from Navajo Culture, to the Sky, Wildlife, and Cowboys. The museum staff offered in-depth background on art in the museum’s vast collection, while curating book and film recommendations, as well as children’s activities.

The Dali’s online experience included curated online exhibits, videos, children’s activities, lesson plans and Virtual Reality. Visitors had a chance to literally immerse themselves in a Virtual Reality trip through a 3-D depiction of nearly 100 pieces of art from the museum’s collection. Dali’s art is best experienced in person, but, of course that wasn’t possible. “It’s definitely a substitute,” Hank said, about the attempt to describe Dali’s art online. “It’s difficult to translate.”

In mid-May, Laura and Hank were already discussing plans to gradually reopen the museums at reduced capacity with safe-distance guidelines in place. Laura had also taken the big step of declaring her candidacy for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board for District 1. “I have been considering it for a while,” said Laura, who served as the PTA president for North Shore Elementary School and helped found a parent fundraising effort called Friends of North Shore Elementary.  “When the pandemic hit, the only thing on my mind was taking care of my family and the museum,” said Laura. “But, I realized the election is happening regardless. And I think it’s too important to sit out.”

In the meantime, the Hine family, like so many other families juggling high-profile careers with kids at home, is doing their best. It may be a while before Hank can make a giant platter of his famous signature paella for a large gathering, or Laura gets to shake a voter’s hand in person while she campaigns for the the School Board. But, they are confident it won’t be long. “Forcasting is difficult, “ said Hank, “but I think travel and tourism will take some time recover. So we’re talking about bringing in mostly local visitors. We’re hoping people will have a hunger to come back as soon as it’s safe.”