Museums Emerging from the Pandemic: Visitor Experience

HGA Arts & Culture experts weigh in on the future of museums in this ongoing series, Museums Emerging from the Pandemic.

People are craving community. As America moves toward reviving its economy, close on the heels of the worst pandemic to strike the nation in over a century, many museums will reopen before a COVID-19 vaccine has become widely available. And although museums are beloved destinations—they welcome people of all kinds, put our world in context, and often provide unbiased explanations—in this light, how might museums prepare to best protect their visitors and staff from infection while reopening their facilities?

Timed Tickets & Limited Capacity

Many museums already use timed-entry tickets to manage crowds visiting popular traveling exhibitions. Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, timed ticketing will help large capacity museums carefully manage how many people are in their facility at any one time without generating lines of anxious visitors outside their buildings. Providing museums with a much-needed source of revenue, timed tickets can be sold online enabling a contactless process to protect staff that would normally interact closely with hundreds (or thousands) of people. Visitors arriving just before their assigned ticket times could be greeted with clear signage showing where they should queue, with clear markings on the floors or pavement to guide ample physical distancing.

Smaller museums without the large numbers of visitors needed to justify timed ticket sales can still streamline their entry sequence and protect staff. They could implement a distant display of membership cards for entry, reducing the number of people at the admissions desk where they can use Plexiglas shields, or allow card-only transactions administered by staff with proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The floor near ticketing should be marked to guide physical distancing by the current standard of six feet or more.

Timed arrivals could also be applied to museum staff, providing staggered shifts for when they can be in the building. This would allow for a reduced and carefully managed occupant capacity throughout the building.

These considerations raise the issue of what the revised capacity of public buildings should be moving forward. Aldi Groceries in the US, for example, is limiting building occupancy in all their stores to five persons per 1,000 square feet to limit the spread of COVID-19 and provide for distancing between visitors and employees. In museums, such an occupancy can be applied to the net square footage of galleries to determine the number of gallery visitors at any one time and also use the net area of staff work areas to determine the number of staff that can be present at once.

Fig 1 & 2. This gallery at the Museum of Wisconsin Art is 2,000 square feet, not including the other galleries beyond at left. At four persons per 1,000 square feet, this gallery could hold eight people with around 20’ distancing between them. Red ellipses are used to show the ideal spacing of museum visitors at 4/1,000 square feet in the plan.

Factors such as number of people visiting together (i.e. families or members of the same household), circulation patterns, gallery shape, and location of art should inform capacity recommendations. Extra consideration for elevators in lower traffic areas can be taken to discourage use when not essential, allowing visitors with disabilities to feel safer and welcome. In high throughput attractions where elevators are part of the primary visitor path, precautions other than precise physical distancing will need to be clearly communicated, particularly when proper physical distancing is not possible to achieve.

One-Way Circulation & Comprehensive Wayfinding

If all visitors are asked to move through galleries in the same direction, safe physical distancing can be more easily maintained. This system is already widely used in galleries with rotating exhibits, with a single point of entry and exit, and typically a single prescribed route through the gallery. Applying this strategy to an entire museum can greatly reduce unavoidable close contact. Plans with one-way circulation patterns can be developed using furniture, moveable walls, or stanchions and ropes to curtail random movement and unexpected close contact. Plans can be made available online and be accessible to visitors via their smartphones.

Fig 3 & 4. An example of a one-way circulation plan for the Museum of Wisconsin Art, in West Bend, WI. Some stanchions and ropes could be used to prevent random movement through the building, and the elevator reserved for visitors with disabilities and their companions.

Communicating local or regional health guidelines and museum policies, including improved wayfinding, should be practiced both inside and outside the museum. While tape on the floor is effective, thoughtful and clever brand-building environmental graphics could be used to help communicate physical distancing guidelines and clear wayfinding. Research shows that new directional signage needs to be extra bold and stand out from existing permanent wayfinding to avoid confusion. [CITE THIS]

Building and maintaining public trust will play an increasingly large role in attracting visitors to cultural institutions. Visitors want to know and understand how these places are protecting them; clear, consistent, and creative communication will help them feel safe and possibly lead to visitors recommending the museum to family and friends.

Leveraging Outdoor Space

As evidenced by the public flocking to parks and trails, museums can re-think their outdoor spaces to host services, gallery talks, events and programming. Spaces that offer freedom of movement are likely to see increased visitors soon because of the perceived safety of the outdoors according to Colleen Dilenschneider. These spaces could provide opportunities for partial or soft openings as well to manage crowds. Expanding audio and visual systems to support outdoor programming are a key consideration. These systems can be less expensive, temporary solutions to meet visitors’ expectations.

Online Programming

Since the national lockdown, many museums have cancelled or postponed all in-person gallery talks, lectures, live demonstrations, and classes. By nature, these events demand a close physical proximity between attendees which now put visitors, staff, and artists at risk. Museums have shifted to online programming such as virtual artist talks and digital galleries which have been widely embraced by those looking for a diversion from at-home isolation. [Add examples of Shedd or KC Zoo]. Placing more programming online is difficult to monetize but has allowed museums to reach a broader and nontraditional audience; people with underlying health conditions who are unable to visit the brick and mortar museum, as well as a more national, or international audience. Digital programming—which some museums had already integrated to a certain extent but have accelerated—has opened a market for online events that will have a lasting impact well into the future. Bruce Karstadt, President and CEO of The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, says, “Since the shutdown we have discovered that we have a broadly-distributed audience interested in participating in our programs, even remotely… Now we know that we have students who will enroll in on-line classes, and these students live in out-state Minnesota, in other states, and even in Germany!”

Key Considerations for Reopening Museums
  • How can you leverage artists to help translate health messages to inform and engage the public-taking into account all cultures and languages in your city?
  • How will institutions remove the fear of returning to museums through clever, mission driven graphics and elevating public safety to performance art?
  • How might visitors, especially members familiar with the space as it was, be communicated with in advance of their visit about the changes in a creative, engaging format?
  • How might a museum build visitors’ anticipation for the coming visit, balanced with confidence that they will be taken care of?
  • How might artists be engaged in creating wayfinding solutions, or how might the existing collections be incorporated, making the new navigation system an artistic experience in itself?
  • Can more outdoor projections be employed for film and video content or open-air discussions previously occurring in auditoriums?
  • How might this inform temporary or more permanent site/architecture canopies and outdoor weather protection?
  • How can the outdoors not replace but accompany and accentuate a visit?

Look for part two in the series soon. If you have questions or comments about this piece, please contact Amy Bradford Whittey. (???)

HGA has created a hub for our insights and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic as architects, engineers, interior designers, and problem solvers. Follow the conversation here.