The happenings of the last months could have been scenes from an apocalyptical sci-fi movie. A virus that spread around the globe causing thousands of deaths and forcing the whole world into lockdown. Suddenly, fiction became reality in the year 2020. It is already partly visible what major economic, financial and social consequences covid19 and the lockdown caused.
Museums were not spared by coronavirus. The culture sector is among the sectors which was hit the hardest. Museums were forced to close their doors for an uncertain period of time with no assurance when they could welcome their visitors again. Thus, museums were deprived of one of their core missions: to make their collections accessible for the education, critical examination and enjoyment of the public. What is a museum without visitors? It is somehow a lifeless shell. Collections are static unless someone interacts with them and asks them for their story.
“We exist in order to provide a service to the public, to provide access to works of art for instruction, contemplation, inspiration, solace. And we can’t do that being closed. There’s no comparison to being in a gallery with family or friends and experiencing works of art.”
Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Museums reopening worldwide
Luckily, museums all around the world have been reopening over the last months. While the wave of closure was swift, the reopening is a longer and carefully thought through process. The decision to reopen was differently tackled by each country depending on governmental orders and the impact of covid-19 on the respective country.
As China was the first major country hit by the virus, it was also the first country to reopen museums in March along with South Korea and Japan. Among European museums, which faced lockdown starting in March, German museums were the first to open again gradually at the end of April followed by Austria, Belgium, Italy, Poland and France in May. In Spain and the Netherlands museums needed a bit more patience as the reopening was scheduled for June. UK museums had to wait until July to emerge from lockdown and will go through a tiered reopening process.
The first museum in the US to open was the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on 20 May. But up to date, there are still many huge and small museums that are closed and have not announced when they will reawake from the slumber they were forced into.
Regardless of the reopening and country, there is one overall mission which is at the heart of all museums now: how to ensure the safety of the visitors. But when it comes to the execution, each and every museum follows its own strategy in line with government orders and public health guidance.
Many of the reopened museums have to cap visitor numbers allowing only a certain amount of people into the building at once to ensure that the minimum distance between visitors can be maintained. For this purpose, museums use poles and ribbons to show visitors the required safety distance or tape demarcations on the floor mark the safety space in queues. For the protection of staff members, plexiglass shields have been mounted at ticket counters and employees are provided with gloves and masks. To avoid cash transaction and to manage visitor capacities, tickets and time-slots have to be booked online at some museums. To manage the visitor flow within the building, only one entrance to the museum is open and one-way tour routes have been established or staff is regulating the movement through the halls.
In some institutions, wearing masks is obligatory at all time for visitors as well as temperature checks at the entrance. Audio guides have been locked away and were replaced by scannable QR codes. Visitors are encouraged to wash their hands or use the disinfectant dispensers which have been set up in the museum. Some museums even turned off air-conditioning, reduced opening hours and ask visitors to complete a questionnaire during the online reservation process regarding “possible fevers, respiratory symptoms, and recent travels abroad”.
There are many solutions to ensure the safety of visitors during their stay in the museum and to fight the spreading of the virus. But in some countries, there is no general safety measure plan provided by state authorities to which museums could stick to, which makes it hard to establish a uniform procedure in all museums.
The lockdown may have cost museums huge revenue losses this year which will also have effect on next year’s budget, but the virus has not diminished people’s interest in art and culture. At the contrary, museums like the Louvre in Paris and National Gallery in London announced that they sold out all tickets available after their reopening. The implemented safety precautions will help visitors to feel comfortable and hopefully many will find their way back into museums in the coming months.
Title photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, Belvedere