Long before the virus, Museums and planners have weighed the pros and cons of different visitor circulation approaches, from single path presentations to branching options for multiple building wings, and the hybrids in between. Today, with the new awareness regarding physical distancing in the wake of the coronavirus, the factors in museum reopening may be shifting to a different understanding of circulation – particularly the single path.
When CambridgeSeven first designed the New England Aquarium in the 1960’s, there were numerous reasons for this new single circulation layout. As designers we adopted a story-telling approach to the overall narrative, with a continuous flow– a beginning, a middle, and a finale, not unlike a play or film. This inductive strategy for unveiling the marine world looked first at individual animals, explained color, motion, adaptations and other aspects of ocean life, and then introduced habitats. The visit culminated with a major tank, illustrating the rich community in the inter-related ecosystem of a coral reef. In doing so the experience was of a continuous immersion, the dramatic impression of a deep-sea dive of discovery.
The single path meant there would be no intersections, no confusing path choices, and no retracing of steps, maintaining the immersive feel of the storyline. One path also meant that no one missed anything, and there were no wrong turns. Return visitation was still strong because the animals themselves had unique and different behaviors each trip. While this design motive was entirely experiential, the plan had some operational advantages. In particular, the life support spaces could be kept behind the scenes while maintaining their own critical, continuous access to most of the tanks.
This approach also had some unforeseen advantages. The single path on a busy day turned out to be able to shorten the dwell time to 1.5 hours, compared to a typical museum’s 3.0 hours, without impacting the visitors’ enjoyment. On slow days, patrons could still spend as much time as they liked, but weekends and holidays could handle crowds. Suddenly, a 100,000 sf Aquarium like NEAq could accept more than a million visits in a year, while a science or art museum might need 3-6 times the building area for the same visitation. Buildings could be smaller, and importantly in urban areas, they could have a smaller footprint on scarce or expensive sites.
CambridgeSeven has been active on both sides of this circulation debate, depending on the museum’s mission and philosophy. We also began to work with Michael Spock in the 1960’s, as he and his team at the Boston Children’s Museum invented the new museum approach of “Please Touch!” Years later, as we helped move BCM to a new building on the Boston waterfront, their pedagogical approach emphasized the child’s autonomy and self-directed discovery. To stay true to mission, the circulation needed to provide choice and offer multiple options to follow the child’s own interest.
From the outset we plan any circulation model to match the intended experience and educational take-aways. We recognize that both approaches have advantages. However, because of the introduction of hands-on activities, group play, and interactive exhibits, for most participatory museum types the time spent is longer, visitor capacity is lower, and more encounters with others are inevitable. Larger museums we work with face these issues at an even greater scale, because no one experiences the entire museum in a single visit, and they choose different paths for each return trip.
With the advent of the virus and the need for social separation, the single path visitor circulation needs to be reconsidered, at least for the short term, as the tentative public returns. Single path inherently lends itself to continuous entry to the museum and the ability to enforce evenly spaced visitor flow. A re-evaluation of the overall path in any existing museum could suggest possible safe paths and strategic interventions to control spacing.
Many of our clients have the advantage of existing outdoor ticketing pavilions, already isolated, and at a distance from the building. Staff could separate by using alternate windows, and the queue being outside allows plenty of space for visitors. Other institutions, like hospitals, are meeting the virus problem with tents and temporary structures to handle testing and entry. Museums could do the same, as they often do on hectic holidays. Of course, ticket purchases can be limited to online initially, so the window(s) would all be member or will-call. Museums might also consider timed ticketing and the use of apps such as Crowd Solo.
We believe a managed transition back to some form of being open for business is critical. It would attract the eager, early visitors, reassure museum members, and send a positive message to the general public. Even with low capacity through-put, a phased early opening would sell tickets, employ staff, and encourage community support.
We have been impressed with how hospitals, grocery stores, and other service businesses have adapted their physical space for social distancing with controlled entry and new circulation, along with typically providing masks and sanitizers and disinfecting accessible surfaces. Solutions for museums may range from minor architectural changes or new directional signage, to posting staff and docents at key points in the visit to manage flow and prevent visitors from touching surfaces. Decisions will need to be made around closing off some areas and some visitor services, like gift shops and food service areas. In the end, it may be a combination of small, but strategic, moves that could make a big difference in a return to the museum visit.