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Boston museums may reopen soon, but will the experience be ‘diminished’?

The Boston Globe - May 22, 2020

By Murray Whyte

 In China, Korea, and Germany, they started in April. In Belgium and Austria, in May. In Italy, just this week. And in Connecticut — Connecticut! — the first of them will open Saturday, in time for Memorial Day weekend. 

That’s right: After months on pins and needles, the world’s museums are emerging from coronavirus-imposed limbo, cracking open their doors for the first time since spiking infection rates locked them up tight in March. June 29 is the approximate date museums in Massachusetts will be allowed to reopen if health trends continue moving downward, according to Governor Charlie Baker’s four-phase plan. (Museums can reopen during phase three, after most retailers but well before major sporting events and concerts.) 

In the cultural world, museums were bound to go first, thanks to their big-footprint buildings and well-practiced codes of conduct (don’t touch; step back, please). That makes them uniquely suited for the current health climate. (The Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, which opens Saturday, has the advantage of its offerings being largely outside — a key factor when managing a virus for which outdoor transmission is reportedly negligible.) 

Museum reopenings are good news for shut-ins yearning for some return of public life. But it’s certainly not a matter of flipping a switch. At the Museum of Fine Arts, management has convened five separate reopening teams working toward a date in early July with the explicit acknowledgement that “the pandemic could affect visitation for all cultural organizations long into the future, and that museums will likely reopen with a much different model,” the museum said in a statement. “We will still be dedicated to preserving and celebrating the art in our care, but will have new and different approaches to presentation.” At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a reopening date is planned for the week after the July Fourth holiday, but the museum has been working closely with Dr. Michael Klompas, the lead hospital epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to prepare. 

Things will be different. Very different. “We will be dramatically reducing the number of people allowed in our museum every hour,” said Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, which has set its reopening for July 7. Now 100 people can visit every hour, down 50 percent to 70 percent from the museum’s former hourly average. “People are going to be wearing masks, we’re going to have online ticketing, there will be plexiglass shields at our front desk, there’s going to be hand sanitizer throughout the museum, we’ll have much more and new cleaning protocols, we’ll have extensive training for staff to help enforce physical distancing. And somehow, in that, we need to make sure we continue to provide our radical welcome — that we still offer that powerful sense of belonging.” 

Museums will walk a fine line between the near-militarized movement restrictions we’ve come to know in grocery stores — one-way aisles, lines on the floor — and the free-flowing contemplative experiences visitors typically crave. Peter Kuttner, a principal at the CambridgeSeven architecture firm, has been consulting with museum clients including the New England Aquarium and Boston Children’s Museum on their reopening plans. Safely moving people through buildings is paramount, he said, and it won’t come without some costs. 

“People, we think, will be very willing to have a diminished experience over having no experience at all,” he said. Virtually all museums have indefinitely suspended public programming and live performances, cutting into core offerings that have been fast-growing in recent years. And anything interactive, another growth area in the field, is off the table, too. Kuttner has been working on new restrictions including the “single path” approach — one route through the building, no backtracking, no stepping off to exit — which he called “the backbone of any reopening plan.” 

“Self-guided discovery has always been important to the museum experience,” he added. “But there’s always a linear story you can tell. These are the kinds of things we’re all just going to have to accept and appreciate.” 

Museums here in the United States have the benefit of watching colleagues in Asia and Europe take the first leap, trying different strategies to keep patrons safe without imposing to the point where precautions become the dominant feature. Masks, of course, are standard. Floor markings (to direct traffic) are everywhere. One museum in Italy requires that visitors wear social-distancing devices to vibrate when they get too close to others. 

That’s the “diminished experience” Kuttner might be referring to, reminders of the nightmare museum-goers will want to temporarily escape. At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Bob Monk, chief of facilities, security operations, and planning, is running through a number of scenarios for a planned reopening the first week of July. “I don’t know if we’re at the point of putting lines on the floor, like the supermarket,” he said. “We’d like to keep things as free flowing as possible, but we also need to be realistic. I will say we’re doing an awful lot of linear thinking, let’s put it that way.” (For the record, Harvard Art Museums, the last of the city’s big art museums, is keeping mum.) 

With 120,000 square feet open to the public, PEM can accommodate a lot of people without feeling crowded. “We could have 500 people in the building and maintain social distancing pretty easily,” Monk said. The bigger task, he said, will be convincing people to visit at all. “I think the crisis has made a lot of people very wary of being in public and being around other people,” he said. “We’re still learning what it will take for people to feel safe enough to come back. How do we do that from behind masks and gloves?” 

Whatever the barriers, Medvedow insists that the ICA’s mission won’t change. “Our job is to be a platform for audiences to encounter great works and engage with meaning, and with one another,” she said. “What will change is that we won’t be coming in in large groups, and more of us will be coming alone because we have to stay apart.” 

Medvedow was reminded of a quote from the artist Ann Hamilton, she said, “about museums being places where we can be together, alone. That is what we will be providing. We will be providing fun, contemplative, enriching experiences, as we’ve always done. I don’t think wearing a mask will diminish that at all.” 

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The Boston Globe