When Twin Cities museums open again, it won't be the same.
Picture this: Timed tickets. Touch-free doors. Ikea-like signs to direct foot traffic. No more docent-led group tours. And loads of hand sanitizer, of course.
"We are working on creating as much of a touchless journey as possible," said Eric Bruce, head of visitor experience for the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia).
Bruce and his counterparts are strategizing ways to welcome the public following Gov. Tim Walz's June 5 order allowing museums, along with other recreational or seated entertainment venues, to reopen at 25% of capacity, with a limit of 250 people.
The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis has already begun welcoming visitors on Saturdays and Sundays — but with timed admission to limit the number of museumgoers. The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis reopened Monday, while Mia has set a July 16 date. Walker Art Center will begin a phased reopening July 10 for its members and July 16 for the general public.
On a national level, the American Alliance of Museums has developed reopening guidelines, including protocols for cleaning and capacity.
Unlike theaters, museums tend to be spacious, making physical distancing easier. With 137,000 square feet of gallery space, Mia has been working with the Carlson School of Management to figure out capacity protocols.
Mia will likely use its 3rd Avenue doors as entrance and exit, and install plexiglass barriers at its welcome desk and other places where staffers are stationed. Café tables will be spaced out. There will be special hours for at-risk visitors.
Don't expect Mia's doors to fly open July 16. While admission is free, the museum plans to test timed tickets during the first week.
The initial visitors will essentially be guinea pigs.
Bruce compared the COVID changes to how airports adapted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"After 9/11, there were a lot of new requirements," he said. "Now, as airports are designed, they are all incorporating this into their ways of thinking."
The world has changed
Museums around the world are facing a changed landscape.
In Berlin, museums were allowed to reopen May 4. In Seoul, museums opened last month, but then closed again after a second wave of the coronavirus.
In New York City — a hot spot in the pandemic — museums won't likely open until late summer.
"There's a pretty good likelihood that what happened in Korea will happen here," said Whitney Museum of Art director Adam Weinberg, who was a Walker curator in the 1980s.
The New York museum leader sees challenges in social distancing, even given the Whitney's spacious galleries.
"Some people suggested if you have fewer works on the walls, people will have more space, but we don't think so," said Weinberg. "It will cause people to clump up around works on the walls."
The Walker's phased reopening will start in its galleries, where it can control flow and occupancy. Its cinema and performing-arts spaces will follow at some undetermined date.
"Just because the governor says that places can open doesn't mean that people will go," said Walker director Mary Ceruti. "There's a whole spectrum, from people who are quite anxious and for good reason … to people who are vulnerable, to people who are more relaxed, who feel like the risk is reasonable, to people who are just cavalier."
Some Twin Cities museums face challenges due to unique architectural styles.
The Bakken, housed in a historic mansion near Bde Maka Ska, closed for construction around the time the pandemic hit. Some of its remodeling plans fit perfectly with the governor's new requirements, like updating the lower-level HVAC system for improved air circulation, and installing touchless ticketing and bathroom facilities.
The Bakken's challenges hinge on its eccentric space, which combines an assortment of architectural styles, including English Tudor and European Gothic Revival.
"There are parts of the museum where one-way flow is not possible," said its president, Michael Sanders.
The museum's reopening weekend June 20-21 drew only a couple dozen people in all — about 25% of its average visitor numbers for a June weekend — with Bakken staff conducting "constant cleaning ... continuously throughout the day," Sanders said.
Masks are required for all visitors and staff indoors, but guests don't have to wear masks in the Bakken's gardens.
The Museum of Russian Art, housed in a former church built in 1935, faces similar challenges. "Hands-free" in the bathroom means there are paper towels, not touchless light fixtures.
But when TMORA executive director Mark Meister imagines people moving through his Spanish Colonial-Revival building, he sees opportunity.
"You could turn right and go through into the main gallery or you could decide to go upstairs and follow the arrows," said Meister, who assumed his position last July.
"My hope is that people will want to come to the museum," he said. "We are in a new world and it's just a matter of getting used to it."