What happens when a museum with very little presence on the internet is forced to shift to virtual operations? The Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site has been forced to answer that over the past two years, and Executive Director Alice Bruesehoff and her staff of 13 have turned the obstacles presented by the coronavirus into an opportunity to evolve.
The Rancho—located directly west of the Bixby Knolls neighborhood at 4600 Virginia Road—features a 19th century Monterrey-style adobe building and its adjacent outdoor space. The building served as a ranch for several operations throughout the mid- to late-1800s before being neglected and falling into disrepair through the early 1900s.
The site was acquired by the city of Long Beach and turned into a museum in 1955.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors have enjoyed the house and its grounds in the 67 years since—until March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic put in-person services on hold. Staff at the Rancho knew early on that a lockdown was coming, so the transition to a new way of life was not as jarring as it was for many other businesses and organizations reliant on public interaction.
“I was very impressed with our staff,” Bruesehoff told the Business Journal. “They started transitioning our programming very quickly to a virtual format.”
Prior to the pandemic, the virtual options to experience and learn about Rancho Los Cerritos were limited, as was its audience, Bruesehoff said. The recent push online started with its afterschool program—Long Ago Long Beach—after in-person restrictions were implemented.
The educational outreach initiative started in 2017 and provides lessons taught “through a series of engaging social science workshops delivered in after-school daycare settings around Long Beach,” according to the Rancho’s website. With no venue to deliver the program, staff quickly put together several videos and published them online.
“They were a little bit rough,” Bruesehoff said of the first videos. “But [staff] recorded a couple at the Rancho and included the activities that kids could do at home. And that was really our first foray into virtual programming.”
While it was a forced transition, Rancho staff embraced the new format, and it has paid dividends. As online and social media activity picked up, so too did the number of people paying attention to it, with views on the site’s Facebook page skyrocketing from a couple thousand to over 30,000, according to Bruesehoff.
Another symptom of the success that came with virtual programming was the widening of the audience exposed to the site. While in-person programming was limited in the number of people it could serve, the range of virtual programming is nearly limitless, Bruesehoff said.
“It wasn’t just Long Beach and LA County and Orange County people coming to this site,” Bruesehoff said. “We started having an international audience and we continue to [maintain it], which is impressive.”
While having the attention of people around the globe is a reason for optimism, it did not solve the monetary concerns that came with an in-person shutdown. Some relief came from the federal government in the form of the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, but much of the reason the site was able to remain fiscally sustainable was through the support of donors.
“We actually got some new donors,” Bruesehoff said. “And our current, very supportive donors, really stood by us during the pandemic and continue to—so we met and actually exceeded our COVID budget.”
Prior to the pandemic, tours of the Rancho house served as the main attraction for donors, Bruesehoff said. However, it was its grounds that were key in reopening Rancho Los Cerritos to the public.
Unlike other museums that are mostly confined to indoor spaces, Rancho Los Cerritos features gardens and other outdoor areas that the city of Long Beach deemed “an essential resource for the health and well-being of the community,” according to a press release announcing its reopening in June 2020.
Guests were allowed to visit the Rancho gardens again on June 10, 2020, but the mark of the pandemic was still apparent, shown by the sharp decrease in traffic when compared to the over 26,000 visitors the site used to see on an annual basis. However, the rebound was strong enough to encourage Bruesehoff and her team.
“In 2020, we saw 8,000 people come through, which obviously is a big drop…and then last year in 2021 we saw 7,000 people come through,” Bruesehoff said. “What it pointed out to us is, even in the height of COVID, people were still coming.”
The lessons learned by Rancho Los Cerritos staff also helped improve the in-person programming the site offers. Bruesehoff said she learned to give her audience more distance during their visits, allowing them to have more control over their experience.
Prior to the pandemic, Rancho Los Cerritos only offered a guided tour of the site. Today, the Rancho offers both guided and self-guided tours through various mediums, giving people the option to decide what will be most beneficial for them.
“[What] everyone discovered during the pandemic is there [are] different ways of learning,” Bruesehoff said. “People have very different comfort levels. Managing those expectations, I think, is going to be key for all historical sites and museums.”
Bruesehoff said she hopes this approach will continue to diversify programs to reach and serve as many people as they can. She and the Rancho staff continue to use what they learned during the pandemic to improve the overall experience for guests, integrating the virtual approach taken during the pandemic with the traditional in-person experience that can’t be replicated online.
“We’re talking with our community about what they want from the Rancho,” Bruesehoff said, “as opposed to telling them what we think they need to.”