Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

AAM Centre for the Future of Museums

Elizabeth Merritt, How to Get Ready to Open the Doors, American Alliance of Museums, 29 April 2020

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On March 13, the president declared a national state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus, and in subsequent weeks the US reached a point when 90 percent of the population was on complete lockdown. Now some states are moving towards ending those lockdowns, with Alaska, Oklahoma, and Georgia giving select businesses the OK to reopen and California reopening some public beaches. Texas state governor Greg Abbott has said that state museums can reopen as early as this Friday, though they will be limited to “25% capacity,” and hands-on exhibits must stay closed.

As official restrictions are lifted, museums are faced with difficult choices. 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?

Even if museums are ready to reopen, and the public is eager to return (as Colleen Dilenschneider’s IMPACT research suggests they are), they may need to be prepared to close all over again. Some credible models of COVID-19 project the need for “intermittent distancing”—easing restrictions on travel and socialization as cases of coronavirus spread, and locking down again when cases crop up again, locally or across the nation. We’ve seen this already in Shanghai, which reopened a number of cultural attractions when COVID-19 cases dropped to zero, only to shut them again when the city experienced a surge of new cases fueled by tourism.

To help museums with the process of reopening (and possible cycles of re-reopening), my colleagues and I have added a new section to the AAM COVID resources, with information to inform museums’ plans for reopening. In this post, I’ll share some thoughts on how museums may prepare their staff and exhibits for reopening.

Reopening starts with a museum’s own people: staff and volunteers

Museums will have to adjust their staffing to suit current circumstances. Some museums have supported their staff through closures, but those that have furloughed or laid off staff members will have to rehire before they can open their doors. Regardless, not all staff may be able to return to work right away, as they may be coping with lack of childcare, health issues, or concerns about their own vulnerability or that of family members. Commuting may be complicated by the challenges of finding safe, reliable public transportation. Volunteers—who typically outnumber museums’ paid staff—are often older individuals, and therefore at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Many may decide (or you may decide for them) that it is prudent to delay their return, and paid staff may need to cover some of the work they usually do.

In any case, the staffing required by your “post-COVID” operating plan may be different than your old organizational chart. You may need more people working the floor to provide sanitation, or to monitor and communicate with visitors. On the other hand, you may cancel or suspend some activities (e.g., floor demos, docent-led tours), freeing the  staff normally doing this work to be reassigned. Whatever their jobs, staff (and volunteers) will need to be trained on new procedures: safety and sanitation, communicating with visitors about COVID precautions, reassuring people who are worried, handling people who are non-compliant. Museums may encourage some staff to continue to telework, in order to minimize exposure in the office. On the other hand, staff may welcome opportunities to reconnect with each other and reclaim some feeling of normalcy in their lives.

When the doors open, what’s inside?

As Scott Stulen, Director of the Philbrook Museum of Art, said in a recent post on the CFM Blog, “the museum we closed will not be the museum we reopen.” Museums are reexamining every aspect of the public environment to ensure they are providing a safe, psychologically comfortable experience. Even absent “some kind of full-body disinfecting station at entry points” (as proposed by one author on Artnet News), visitors may notice many changes when they return to their beloved museums. For example, they may find that the museum has:

  • Instituted timed tickets (even for free admission), or other means of enforcing limits on the number of people in the museum at any one time.
  • Converted all doors (interior and exterior) to hands-free entry.
  • Embraced digital payment via platforms such as PayPal, Venmo, or tap-to-pay credit card systems. In fact, the admissions desk and shop may no longer accept cash. (Just one of many issues of equity and accessibility raised by COVID impacts.)
  • Decided to require visitors to wear masks (which many or all staff wear as well). Perhaps museum volunteers have produced a stock of free masks to be distributed, as needed, to visitors lacking their own.
  • Installed hand sanitizer stations at frequent intervals.
  • Created signage about appropriate distancing and sanitation behavior. Some of that signage might establish one-way flow through the museum and within galleries, to facilitate distancing. Some might create six-foot grids on the floor, to provide visual cues for spacing.
  • Placed limits on the number of people in any one gallery.
  • Closed off, redesigned, or removed some hands-on exhibit interactives.
  • Replaced printed gallery guides with audio guides that can be accessed via smartphones.
  • Closed the café, or removed some of the tables and seats, or provided an option for visitors to pick up a boxed lunch to eat outside on the museum grounds.
  • Closed the museum store, or limited the number of people who can be inside at any one time, probably with a firm policy of “don’t touch the merchandise.”
  • Shifted cleaning and sanitation from an “after hours” chore to something conducted in a highly visible and reassuring manner throughout the day.

How long will it take to queue up these changes?

I read an article recently that cavalierly referred to how easy it would be to reopen restaurants (“just open the doors”) without taking into account the enormously long list of things any business will have to accomplish before they can welcome the public. Museums are no exception. As your museum creates a reopening plan, you’ll have to factor in how much time it will take to order and receive supplies, modify facilities and exhibits, create signage, prepare staff, and deploy publicity. This may be complicated by the fact that some of the supplies you need (e.g., personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies) may not be available or may be on backorder. Perhaps most importantly, there will need to be sufficient time to communicate and listen to staff, surfacing issues that need to be addressed, plugging overlooked holes in the plan, and ensuring that your people feel safe, prepared, and supported as they return to work.

I hope that you find the resources we have compiled to be useful in helping you address all the issues I’ve touched on above. You can help by offering to share your museum’s reopening plans—please fill out this form if you are willing to let us add that to our growing list of free COVID resources for the field.

Be safe, be sane, be well.


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