When the Field Museum in Chicago reopened to members in mid-July, it became clear the gallery housing “Sue”—the world largest and most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex—was a choke-point as visitors stopped to take in a light show projection on the fossil, and to hear her story.
A film that follows this presentation needed to be cut for now so that the “Sue show” would happen more frequently, allowing visitors to move through the space and on to the rest of the museum, says Ray DeThorne, the museum’s chief marketing officer.
Chicago’s half-million-square-foot natural history museum is hardly alone in tweaking the visitor experience now that it has reopened its doors to ensure that guests and staff alike can enjoy the exhibits and stay healthy.
While many museums remain closed, adhering to state and city guidelines to limit the spread of the coronavirus, many are also slowly reopening, and are finding visitors in need of a change of scenery or an art fix are tip-toeing back—with masks on.
The experience is not quite what it once was, however—there are timed entries to keep visitor counts down, guided flow through exhibition hallways, lots of visible signs reminding guests to keep a social distance, limits to elevator capacity, and regular sanitizing of high-touch surfaces. While gift shops and some cafeterias have reopened, capacity is limited, and touchless payments are conducted through plexiglass.
Those who arrive without a mask at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver), are given one made by local artists Matthew Stearns, Crispysz’ aka Heartboy, Katy Batsel, or Laura Shill. Being able to get one of the whimsical, colorful masks may mean some visitors choose to leave their own plain versions at home, of course.
Re-emerging After a Difficult Time
Re-opening is, however, serious business for museums, which suffered from lost revenue for months in most cases, and for visitors who have missed the benefits of being around beautiful objects and learning new things. An American Alliance of Museums survey last month revealed a third of museums may not survive without financial relief.
“We’re looking at a $20 million hit,” says DeThorne of the Field Museum’s lost revenue from a number of sources after being forced to shutter for the last several months. In addition to sales from tickets, food, and gifts—from branded shops located at O’Hare International Airport as well as in the museum—the Field Museum also wasn’t able to lend out its exhibitions to other museums, which brings in rental income.
“We’re blessed by a group of trustees and donors who have been supportive, historically, so they are helping us make up some of the loss,” says DeThorne, who added that federal government Paycheck Protection Program funding helped as well. However, he added, many employees who couldn’t work at home had to be furloughed, and 27 were let go. “This will take years to recover from,” he says.
After welcoming back members in mid-July, the Field Museum fully opened to visitors on July 24, but so far, only about 900 visitors a day arrive—a fraction of the 25% capacity the museum is allowed to have according to city and state guidelines, DeThorne says. One reason may be a resurgence of cases in Illinois that could potentially lead to a reversal in re-openings allowed in the state.
MCA Denver, meanwhile, lost about $500,000 during the pandemic-mandated closures through early July, from a lack of admissions, memberships, canceled programs, fundraising event revenue, and retail and restaurant sales, says Courtney Law, director of communications and experience.
The museum “prioritized both full- and part-time staff,” during this time, and was able to keep everyone employed, Law says, crediting funding received from the PPP, a crowdfunding campaign, and a “very supportive board.” The museum cut its 2021 budget, which began on July 1, by 20%, but anticipates “a slow but meaningful return of earned revenue,” now that visitors are returning.
So far, MCA Denver is getting an “overwhelmingly positive” response from visitors who have been surveyed about what it was like to be back, Law says.
The process of reopening museums has been all-consuming for many over the last several weeks. At ICA/Boston, the planning began just two weeks after the museum was forced to close in mid-March, says Kelly Gifford, deputy director for public engagement and planning at ICA/Boston.
The preparation included weekly meetings with staff at Boston’s four other major museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and museums at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
“We wanted to make sure a visitor to any of our museums would have a similar experience, so it wouldn’t have to be new learning every time you went to another museum,” Gifford says.
ICA opened for members July 14, and to the public on July 16, with advanced-purchased online timed ticketing designed to limit visitors to about 100 an hour, given the museum’s galleries are relatively small at about 15,000-square-feet. Like the Field Museum, ICA isn’t reaching even that reduced capacity, with weekly attendance down 78% last week from a year ago.
“It’s pretty quiet,” Gifford says. The upside is that both visitors and staff “feel really comfortable,” she adds.
A Shift in Exhibition Schedules
An exhibition of more than 70 works by the U.S. artist Sterling Ruby, from more than two decades of his career, had only been open two weeks when ICA/Boston closed, so the staff decided to keep it on view. They also extended viewing of works by Harlem-based artist Tschabalala Self, and an exhibition of hanging sculptures created by the Los Angeles artist Carolina Caycedo from handmade fishing nets and other objects.
“We wanted to give those shows and those artists more time,” Gifford says. But the ICA also is making sure it is giving its curatorial staff, and installers, time to figure out how to install new exhibitions safely for themselves, and for visitors and staff.
In September, the ICA expects to install Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, which Gifford said is a “huge hometown favorite.” It’s described on the website as a “monumental, nine-channel sound and video installation of a performance staged at Rokeby Farm, a historic 43-room estate in upstate New York.”
When MCA Denver closed in March, director Nora Burnett Abrams quickly made sure all the materials for an exhibition of the works of Nari Ward, a New York artist, originally set to open April 26, were shipped to Denver. Abrams’ quick thinking meant the museum was able to open with “We the People,” a showcase of Ward’s sculptures, paintings, videos, and large-scale installations that speak to social justice issues and the immigrant experience.
Anticipating that not all visitors will be ready to return, MCA Denver continues to create virtual programming, and to keep its social media engagement lively with comedy videos and self-care tips, initiatives that have drawn in visitors from all parts of the country and the world.
Abrams, the director, also commissioned a local poet, Mathias Svalina, to create “Dreaming Denver,” a cell-phone guided walking tour of the city. “It’s something you can do at your own pace,” Law says.
The Field Museum had to make some adjustments in what was available for visitors to see, limiting interactive exhibits, including The Crown Family PlayLab. The Pawnee Earth Lodge also had to be closed because natural materials in the exhibition are difficult to clean. The Field Museum had been open everyday but Christmas before the pandemic, but now is closed two days a week for a deep cleaning.
One way the Field Museum hopes to lure visitors back is with a fleshed-out version of Sue the T. rex, which will be displayed in the museum for a month before it travels the country. The exhibit is “amazing,” DeThorne says. For those who have “seen the fossil of a T. rex before, “imagine it having all the meat on the bones—it’s really wild.”