Back in mid-March, museums across New York State closed their doors for an uncertain amount of time to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. At the end of August, Governor Cuomo gave NYC museums permission to reopen, the last region to be granted that permission. As museums follow the mandated and recommended best practices to safely welcome staff and visitors, the museum experience is fundamentally changed. In July, MANY hosted a virtual meet-up with colleagues located in regions that had reopened who shared their strategies, policies, and procedures.
New Visitor Experiences and Expectations
“The biggest challenge we had in reopening was keeping up with some of the changes that were coming from the state,” said Brian Lee Whisenhunt, Executive Director of The Rockwell Museum. Guidelines implemented by the state for Phase 4 reopening were not released until two days before museums were permitted to reopen. “It was important for us to have someone on staff who was dedicated to pay attention to what was coming from the Governor’s office because there were so many changes day to day.” Many museums who were located in regions that were among the first to enter Phase 4 decided to wait. “We didn’t have the guidelines from the state as we made our plans to reopen,” said Whisenhunt. “We got them a few days before but luckily we were right on track in our considerations to reopen.”
In preparing to reopen, many museums wanted to address visitor expectations and demonstrate a positive visitor experience under these new guidelines. Museums updated their website with new hours, described the precautions staff were taking, outlined visitor expectations from requiring masks, to thermal screenings, social distancing, and limited access to exhibitions. New signage outside and inside the museum was also important. “We make sure that we are communicating everything as far as new signage,” said Whisenhunt. “Thinking about how you can message some of the [new visitor expectations] in different ways is important.”
Part of the new visitor experience is purchasing tickets in advance. Many museums have moved to an online ticketing system including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “Like many museums, the Hall of Fame implemented a timed ticketing system where people can reserve a particular time and date for their visit up to 30 days in advance,” said Ken Meifert, VP for Sponsorship and Development at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Using this system has also provided data on popular entry times to the museum and allowed the museum to make changes. “It was interesting to see to note that more people were purchasing tickets to enter the museum at the top of the hour rather than on the half hour and so we made adjustments to be able to accomodate more within our reduced capacity,” said Meifert. 80% of visitors to the Hall of Fame are taking advantage of the pre-booking system. But not everyone has access to a computer or high speed internet or they prefer to use cash. Meifert said that the Museum is committed to not turn anyone away and are still taking walk-ups and people using cash.
Under Phase 4 guidelines, museums may operate at 25% capacity. “Before we opened we thought we would be reduced to 50% capacity,” said Meifert. “And then the guidelines were released about 48 hours before we would be able to reopen and we were capped at 25% but we are not seeing those kinds of visitor demand yet. Comparing year over year, we are 90% lower in visitor admissions compared to July 2019. In some of our opening time slots we are reaching capacity, but not overall.”
The Rochester Museum and Science Center in the Finger Lakes Region was one of the first to reopen to the public on June 27 and coordinated their opening with other local museums. “We are looking at between 13% and 14% of our budgeted capacity,” said Hillary Olson, President and CEO of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. “When we originally estimated our capacity we anticipated 30% but we looked to other science museums who were reopening and saw that it was closer to 10 to 15% capacity. My recommendation is to not overestimate who is coming to your museum. People are not interested in gathering in indoor spaces.” Despite lower visitor numbers those who are visiting are enthusiastic about visiting a museum.
Rochester Museum and Science Center Staff pose outside the museum to announce their reopening on June 27. Photo by Jess Kamens.
Other museums who have seen a decrease in visitors but have seen an increase in digital programming. “Before COVID, most of our visitors came from programs, which not we cannot offer safely,” said Mary Zawacki, Executive Director of the Schenectady County Historical Society. “Being closed allowed us to engage with audiences that we normally would not be reaching. In the spring and summer we are hyper focused on our school and public programming that we are not able to do any digital outreach, but now the pandemic has forced us to do digital outreach which has resulted in a whole new group of people that are engaged with the historical society. It’s been an opportunity to put energy into an area that normally we wouldn’t be able to do.”
Not all museums have decided to reopen. The Dyer Arts Center in Rochester made the decision to remain closed for the fall. “Cases were on the rise, and the funding required to reopen safely did not make sense for our budget so we are hosting everything online,” said Tabitha Jacques, Dyer Arts Center Director.
Masks in the Museum
Perhaps the largest unease for museums on reopening has been the mandate of wearing masks inside public spaces. “People are happy to see staff and other visitors wearing masks,” said Olsen. “We haven’t had an issue with it...even our summer camp with 200 kids all wore masks.”
The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is able to supply complementary masks to visitors, but 97% of visitors arrive with their own masks. “People seem to understand what the protocol is in our COVID world and are compiling which has been a big relief to our staff,” said Meifert.
New signage from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Baseball Hall of Fame kept true to their brand and kept new health and safety messaging fun for visitors like the “on deck” circle to promote social distancing that is a term familiar to baseball fans. Photo by Milo Stewart Jr.
The Rockwell Museum also has not had a lot of problems with mask wearing. “We have a bison that looks like it is protruding out of our building called Artemis and he is now wearing a mask. The mask is a shower curtain and it is a fun reminder to wear a mask when visiting. We’ve gotten great community feedback.”
Artemis, the bison sculpture, outside The Rockwell Museum wears a mask made from a shower curtain. Photo courtesy of The Rockwell Museum.
Keeping Accessibility in the Forefront of Reopening
It is important for museums to remember to keep visitors with disabilities in mind when reopening. “As a deaf person I need to access information ahead of time,” said Jacques. “I need something to interpret the audio recordings, etc. Whatever the museum decides to do for the deaf, they need to make sure that the technology is available and to make sure that technology is cleaned after every use. It’s important to communicate the options. Wearing a mask makes it difficult to communicate with a deaf person so be okay to use a pen and paper to write back and forth.” Using pen and paper to help communicate with the deaf community is something that the Rochester Museum and Science Center and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum have incorporated into their reopening strategies. (You can read more about Tabitha Jacque’s recommendations for accommodating people with disabilities as part of museums reopening plans here)
“We also supply wheelchairs to our visitors and we are making sure that there are dedicated people to sanitizing them after every use,” said Meifert about the Baseball Hall of Fame. “We are also restricting elevators to only those who really need them and asking others to use the stairs.”
New Strategies for Interactive Exhibitions
At the Rockwell Museum, interactive exhibitions are an important part of the museum. “We believe it is a great way to connect people with our artwork to experience and have tactile opportunities,” said Whisenhunt. There are interactives throughout the museum, but reopening under new guidelines allowed the museum to get creative. “Our education team did a great job in developing a single use visitors pack. This is a bag that each visitor gets that includes a gallery guide, a building history guide, and an I spy book.” The Rockwell Museum was able to extend some of their exhibitions for the public and have also reopened with “Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War” an exhibition on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “People have been excited to return. We’ve extended some of our exhibitions and have reopened with exhibitions with works by women of color,” said Whisenhunt.
From The Rockwell Museum website, visitors can leave comments about the exhibitions on view to interact with other visitors.
The Rockwell has also created new responsive opportunities for their exhibitions. “We developed a program using Padlet, which is a tool that people can use to respond to exhibitions as well as using QR codes. When you come into the museum there are QR codes to help visitors respond to our exhibitions to let other visitors know what they think and engage in conversation.” Rockwell staff is also writing new interpretations for some of the artwork through the lens of the pandemic and the protests against systematic racism. “It asks how these works of art are different to us today because of what we’ve experienced for the last few months and we hope that it gives our visitors something to think about and to help process some of the same things that they are feeling as they go through the museum.” Whisenhunt said that these new interpretations will be used in an online publication that anyone can use at home as well as part of a virtual program where staff will have discussion groups around these works of art and ideas to help people in their community.
At the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, most of their interactives are touch screens or buttons that play audio and video clips. “We purchased inexpensive styluses that we provide complimentary to our visitors to use on the screens and buttons,” said Meifert. “It wasn’t a huge investment for us but was a great way to keep our computer interactives safe.”
“When this began, we were at the start of a five year plan and now we are looking at a 3 month plan,” said Olson. “We’re moving forward with trying to figure out how to budget but we are not sure what 2021 will look like. Our budget is expected to be 25% lower than where we were planning to be at the end of 2021.” Olson stressed that during this time, it is important for everyone to be on the same page, especially when it comes to planning for the future. “It is all about flexibility and the ability to turn on a dime and be creative about how to make things happen.” Museums must be responsive to what is happening around them.
“Improvise, adapt, and overcome has been our motto,” said Meifert. “I think it's created a stronger team feeling in the organization than we had pre-COVID because everyone realizes that we are in together. It requires everyone’s input to make it work.”