Museums across the world are now open, or preparing to reopen, after the period of temporary closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it won’t be business as usual, as organisations cope with new health and safety regulations and work to win back audience trust.
Scott Stulen, Director of the Philbrook Museum of Art, recently said in a post on the Center for the Future of Museums Blog, “the museum we closed will not be the museum we reopen.” So what changes can we expect to see as institutions around the world prepare for the new normal? We look at some likely new procedures and policies. We’ll also explore some case studies of museums that are already open again.
Health & safety procedures for museums after COVID-19
It’s clear that we are likely to see several new health and safety procedures being put in place in museums after COVID-19. These serve to keep visitors safe and minimise the risk of germs being transferred. But visible actions will also be key in reassuring guests, as museums reopen and try to generate revenue after months of closures.
Put simply, if attractions such as museums don’t make it clear what they are doing to keep their visitors safe, then visitors won’t come.
Ticketed entry and other checks
Like many other attractions around the world, museums will need to limit the number of people visiting at any one time. This is to allow appropriate space inside for social distancing and to prevent venues from becoming crowded.
One way to achieve this is for museums to implement timed and ticketed entry after COVID-19. This will allow them to keep track of the number of visitors inside. It will also keep a regular flow of guests throughout the day.
Even museums with free entry will need to bring in some form of admission control. Otherwise, they may be facing long queues as well as having to find space to accommodate these, allowing for the correct amount of space between those waiting. It is also important that this ticket system is contactless. For example, using visitors’ own phones with QR codes or barcodes that staff can scan.
Some theme parks and other attractions are checking guest temperatures on entry with hand-held scanners. We may well see this in the museum world too.
Museums often have exhibits that visitors can touch and explore. After the COVID-19 outbreak, these museums will need to rethink how to present these. Reducing the number of touchpoints is key to cutting down the risk of germ transfer.
Visitors may find, therefore, that several of their favourite interactive displays have been put out of order. However, there are several hands-free alternatives available that we are likely to see more of in the long term. These include high-tech displays with motion sensors or voice activation. Some solutions make use of visitors’ own smartphones.
Another issue is the use of traditional audio guides. These shared devices will require thorough cleaning between users. A more simple solution would be to choose an audio tour that users can enjoy through their own device.
As well as touch-free exhibits, museums will need to ensure that they can accept contactless payment when reopening after COVID-19. This means that guests can pay for gifts and refreshments without using cash.
The pandemic has led to a huge rise in contactless payments. This is because it is a more hygienic method of payment than using cash. At the start of the outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised the public to wash their hands after handling money. Many businesses also began to require contactless payments only.
Some institutions might consider reducing the minimum spend for contactless payments. This will further encourage visitors to pay with cards or smartphones rather than cash.
Face masks and handwashing stations
The issue of face masks is certainly divisive. But many attractions are requiring guests to wear them when they reopen, and museums are likely to be no different. In many places, the decision will be dependent on the regulations introduced by different countries, states or regions.
— WXYZ Detroit (@wxyzdetroit) May 18, 2020
Museums could produce their own face masks, for example using prints from their collections. Not only will these keep visitors and staff safe, but they will also act as a revenue stream and an advertisement. Several organisations are looking for new ways to generate revenue after the COVID-19 closures. This could be a popular solution.
There will also be an increase in the amount of handwashing/hand sanitisation stations available throughout museums. For example, at entrances and exits, cafes and other high-traffic areas.
Protection for museum staff after COVID-19
Front of house museum staff are likely to be seen wearing masks after COVID-19. This is because they come into contact with many different visitors throughout the day, making them more vulnerable.
Museums will also be putting other protective measures in place to ensure staff welfare. For example, enquiry kiosks and ticket desks can be protected by the addition of plexiglass screens. These are a way of blocking the droplets that are released when visitors speak, cough or sneeze.
Another benefit of these screens is that they are a very obvious safety measure. This signals to visitors that the museum is taking health and safety seriously upon reopening.
Signage and communication
One more way that museums can signal their commitment to guest safety is by adding new signage when they reopen after COVID-19. This also helps visitors to understand the new regulations and to know what is expected of them.
For example, they will need to add floor markings where visitors are likely to queue or gather. This is so that guests can keep the right amount of distance between them and others.
Museums will also need to communicate clearly with guests throughout the process of reopening. For example, putting out positive messages on social media to encourage visitors to return. Or emailing members to let them know what health and safety regulations are now in place, and even inviting them for a preview.
Other new procedures
Some other changes that we might see when museums reopen are more frequent and more visible cleaning routines. This will include surfaces such as handrails, doorknobs and counters. There will also be new safety regulations for gift shops and cafes. For instance, limits on visitor numbers, removal of display items and spacing of chairs and tables.
In addition to this, some museums may choose to implement special hours for vulnerable people to visit. During these times, the number of guests could be capped even further. This will help to protect those who are in high-risk categories, such as those over 70.
Examples of museums now open after the COVID-19 pandemic
The Palace Museum, Beijing, China
Many attractions in China have been open for a month or so already. One of Beijing’s most popular attractions, The Palace Museum, reopened in time for the country’s May Day holiday last month, along with other institutions such as the National Museum of China and the National Art Museum of China.
The Palace Museum closed its doors in January, at the height of China’s coronavirus outbreak. However, after cases of COVID-19 declined later in the year, the museum is was able to reopen for the May Day holiday.
New restrictions include attendance caps. Initially, this was set at a limit of 5,000 visitors per day. For an attraction that previously saw 80,000 visitors a day at busy times, this is a huge reduction. It is just over 6% of the museum’s usual attendance. The cap has since been raised to 8,000 visitors per day.
In addition to this, visitors are required to pre-book their tickets using official identification. They also need to present a green QR code upon entry. Finally, guests must have their temperature taken and wear a face mask.
“Thanks to the support and cooperation of our visitors, the museum operates smoothly and all epidemic prevention and control measures and services have been fully implemented,” said the museum in a statement.
Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, Germany
Museums in Germany were among the first to open after COVID-19, with the Berlinische Galerie welcoming visitors once again from 11 May. Museums in Berlin were allowed to open from 4 May, but the Berlinische Galerie took an extra week to ensure that the right procedures were in place to reopen safely.
The museum has published its new hygiene code online as well as adding new signage. The public must keep their distance from other guests. They are required to visit in groups of two at most unless they belong to the same household. Visitors must also keep at least 1.5 metres between themselves and other parties.
There are extra disinfectant dispensers in the museum entrance area. It is asking guests to use these on arrival, as well as wearing a mask for the duration of their visit. All museum staff are wearing face masks too. Furthermore, contactless payments are encouraged.
In an interview with the New York Times, Thomas Köhler, the director of the Berlinische Galerie, said that the new rules were “not pleasant, but it is necessary…I think the joy that people will get from being back in the museum will be bigger than the inconvenience.”
San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas, USA
The San Antonio Museum of Art reopened on 28 May and offered early access to its members. A statement on the museum’s website reads:
“The Museum is a place for people to gather, to be inspired, and to learn about human creativity throughout time. We strongly believe that art museums will play a vital role in the recovery of our communities from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Now open again after COVID-19, the museum is closely following guidelines from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as well as state and local government officials. All staff and visitors must wear masks while inside the museum.
It is also enforcing social distancing and limiting the number of visitors allowed in at any one time. Online ticketing and contactless payment are in place, as the institution is not currently accepting cash.
In addition to this, it has made it clear that its employees are fully trained on the new regulations. The museum is asking staff and visitors to self-screen and not come in if they are feeling unwell. Extra protective screens are in place and hand sanitiser is also widely available. Furthermore, the museum has temporarily suspended its public programme for the time being.
The museum also has outdoor spaces. Here, both visitors and staff must maintain at least six feet between themselves and other people not in their party. Or to wear a facemask where this is not possible.
Museums can adapt and thrive after COVID-19
Many of the sessions at the recent AAM Virtual Annual Meeting looked at how the museum community can recover from this crisis. But the event also looked at the potential of this moment in time to change museums for the better, to emerge as institutions that put the needs of their communities and of society at the forefront.
In his address to attendees of the virtual conference, Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said: “This is a new day. The pandemic will not go away like a lightswitch. Learn from the past and respect it. Remember our losses and who we are, and embrace the opportunity to do the work.”
The above health and safety procedures are key in helping museums as they recover from the temporary closures. Not only will they keep visitors and staff safe, but they will also reassure audiences that their wellbeing is paramount. While museums have been doing an incredible job of reaching out to the public virtually while closed, they now rely on visitors coming back in person if they are to survive and thrive.
Background image: Berlinische Galerie © Noshe