It was just six months ago — when many of the world’s leading museums were battling crowds and strained capacity in the era of overtourism — when a New York Times critic made a modest proposal: To ease crowding at the Louvre, give the Mona Lisa her own pavillion.
The Mona Lisa stayed put. But now, she sits all on her own, with the kinds of daily mass gatherings she used to preside over off limits for the foreseeable future. But as museums begin to inch towards reopening, the concern of crowds remain, albeit in quite a different fashion.
Museums all over the world are trying to figure out what the visitor experience will look like in the context of social distancing, enhanced hygiene, and lower visitor numbers. It’s a delicate calculation, as Elizabeth Merritt, director for the center of the future of museums at the American Alliance of Museums wrote: “When is it actually safe to reopen without risking spread of the disease? Financially, how should museums balance the relative costs of being open (potentially with lower income than usual) or staying closed (with little or no income but fewer expenses)? And, when museums do reopen, will people come back?”
Compared to, say, a shopping mall or airport, museums have something of an advantage when reopening does come, said Michael Alexis, director of marketing at Museum Hack, a museum consultancy that also provides unconventional tours of the world’s most popular museums. It’s easier for them to keep a tight leash on the number of visitors they allow in — though it may be financially straining to do so — and people tend to have a high opinion of the competency of these institutions.
“People have a lot of trust and confidence in museums, they’re very professional institutions that are extremely well managed,” Alexis said. “Whatever is needed to recover, I have so much confidence in museum professionals being able to work with it, do the best practices, to make the space successful and also in the average person’s trust in that institution.”
But what will it look like? The American Alliance of Museums has released a resource guide for institutions, covering topics including how to know when to reopen, how to protect staff, and how to operate safely. It has also asked for museums to submit their reopening plans so other industry members can benefit.
One example, from the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, covers spatial re-engineering and readiness, hygiene, audience management, and messaging. Among many other detailed measures, it is planning for timed sessions based on typical dwell times, daily capacity limits to allow for social distancing, and playing close attention to footfall with either automated counters or clickers to make sure capacity does not go over a safe level.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam — which in recent years saw a slight decline in arrivals, something it considered a win in the context of overtourism — told Skift that once museums are allowed to open in June, it is planning to allow no more than 200 visitors in the building at the same time. This translates to about 675 to 775 visitors per day. Group visits will likely not be allowed, and tickets will be sold according to 15 minute time slots. With these measures, the museum will only be able to welcome 10 percent of its “normal” daily visitor-ship.
The Getty Center in Los Angeles told Skift that LA County officials currently consider indoor museums and galleries as a “higher risk” category, and thus they must remain closed for the time being.
“While the Getty Center and Getty Villa do have outdoor areas and gardens to be enjoyed, many must be accessed through indoor spaces. Our collections are housed indoors,” Lisa Lapin, vice president of communications for J. Paul Getty Trust, said. “We are working closely with local authorities on a host of measures that will assure that, when we are able to reopen our sites, visitors will be able to enjoy our galleries, collections, and grounds safely and within social distancing guidelines.”
There is, of course, the question of what people’s appetite to visit a museum will be like when life begins to resemble something that’s normal again. Alexis notes that though there was a sharp uptick in interest in virtual tours being offered by many institutions at the beginning of the lockdown, that interest quickly faded, according to Google Trends data.
However, he hopes that museums might learn something of a lesson from that brief spike in interest, and create more virtual experiences that are not merely a static walkthrough of a space, but rather offer an interactive element though it may be facilitated by a screen.
“I think what we’ll see is a kind of bifurcated future: Local experiences will come back, there’s no future where humanity is locked inside for all time, they will go out again, they will go to museums again,” Alexis said. “But, for example, nobody was going on a virtual date three or four months ago — but they are now. And I believe some portion of that market will stay, not because they have to be locked in at home but because maybe they have kids or other obligations … There’s experiences that can be done online by museums and by the tourism industry that people will want to be a part of.”
But, Alexis emphasized, the physical experience of a museum visit will continue to be compelling. Not even a virus will change that.
“There’s nothing that can replace the experience of standing in a museum,” Alexis said. “When you stand in that gallery, when you stand amongst that collection, you’re literally standing amongst the best art we’ve created, the best objects we’ve discovered as a species. It’s incredible.”