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Reopening New York State Museums

May 28, 2020 11:04 AM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

New York State has started to reopen. Museums are included in Phase 4, but conversations about reopening have circulated since the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures. What will reopening plans and protocols for museums look like? How can we ensure staff and visitor safety? What will visitor experience look like? At a recent MANY Virtual Meet-Up, museum leaders shared what these conversations have been like at their institutions.

Brooklyn Museum closed to the public on March 13

Reopening Plans and Protocol

“Reopening plans and protocol is very much in progress,” said Sara Devine, Director of Visitor Experience & Engagement at the Brooklyn Museum.  “We are watching closely at what is happening in both in this country where places are beginning to reopen and abroad for what their protocols are. We’re spending a lot of time talking about plans and protocols for reopening.” The Brooklyn Museum has created different task forces that include different museum staff members. “One is about reopening in terms of safety for staff, building cleaning protocols, and safety for the public which includes myself, our head of building security, our head of collections, conservation, our head of HR, and our budget and finance director. It also includes someone who represents exhibitions and public programming and special events.” The Brooklyn Museum’s task forces ensure that both public facing and internal museum staff are represented and contribute to the conversations on reopening. “At this point [early May] we’re meeting weekly. We have started by focusing on bringing staff back to work because for us that seemed like an obvious place to start. So until we are ready to open our doors we know that certain staff need to be in the building.” 

The Brooklyn Museum conducted an internal survey administered to the department heads about what their return to work plans would look like which included information on which staff people would actually need to be in the building, for how long, and why. It also established staff safety protocols such as wearing masks, temperature checks before entering the building, altering staff shifts, and creating social distancing spaces. “We’re starting with staff safety and then we’ll move on to public safety when we think about reopening. We have a task force that is bringing in members of our community who can share their needs for what we can do for our neighborhood.” Devine is also part of a NYC wide group cultural institutions visitor services group that meets bi-weekly that is brainstorming all of these concerns surrounding reopening. There is also a NYC museum round table task force developed by the Whitney Museum. This task force includes museum CEOs and a few other museum representatives from some of the larger institutions in the city to talk about what the phased reopenings will look like. Its goal is to bring NYC organizations together to create similar protocols for reopening. Similar protocols across NYC’s museums will create a cohesive reopening plan that for anyone coming to NYC to visit a museum will be met with the same protocol. “We are also coming together so that we can better advocate for what that reopening looks like, what the timing is, what is appropriate, and on sharing resources.” 

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Considerations for Museum Reopenings also recommends coordinating with other museums in your community to create consistency and even to share supplies. AAM also recommends coordinating with state and local authorities on your reopening plans. “Look for city, county, state, and federal officials to lift closure orders and the CDC and local public health departments to provide clearance.”

The Oklahoma Museums Association created a “Museum ‘Open to the Public’ Guideline Considerations” a cohesive template for museums to adapt for reopening. While not every guideline is applicable or possible at every institution, guidelines like these will help to establish reopening protocols that can become the standard at each museum. This guideline includes protocols for the museum building, exhibit areas, staff, visitor services, store and cafe, and collections. 

Staff and Visitor Safety

“Staff responsibilities are changing and safety protocols are changing and will likely continue to change moving forward,” said Jeanmarie Walsh, Associate Director of Education at the Long Island Children’s Museum. “This is not just for our staff to function safely in our space but for our visitors when they are allowed in. We will need to make sure that everyone is fully aware of what roles and protocols we need to follow to ensure the safety of our staff and visitors that adhere to what the state and county guidelines are. We are developing that now within our own task force to figure out what the needs are.” The Long Island Children’s Museum also plans on cross training as staff responsibilities shift. “It will include basic things like knowing where radios are to help everyone communicate who is on the museum floor. Our floor supervisors will be doing virtual training for all staff members who are returning so that everyone of us can be on the floor and follow the appropriate protocols.” The Museum is also undergoing Wakanheza training which is aimed at handling and de-escalating stressful situations. “We’re looking at our visitors and our staff coming back that have been through quite a lot and may have experienced trauma through this pandemic and might be more emotional so learning how to de-escalate through finding judgement free and empathetic interactions that our staff can use.”

“We are making sure to communicate on our website to the public everything that the museum plans on doing to ensure safety,” said Bill Gilbert, Senior Manager of Environment, Health and Safety at the Corning Museum of Glass. “It’s a comfort level for our staff that we communicate these safety measures. One of my concerns is that we open too soon so the more precautions that we can take that allow us to open and increase the confidence that we’re protecting our staff to the greatest extent possible gives us a new normal.”

Corning Museum of Glass website, sharing resources and ways to enjoy the museum from home

AAM recommends the importance of assessing your staff resources and the availability of equipment and supplies. According to the MANY COVID-19 Impact Report, 49% of museums in NYS have reduced staff hours and 32% have laid staff off. Assessing staffing ahead of reopening will help museums “recruit, hire, orient, and properly train or retrain staff at all levels in operating, safety, and enhanced cleaning procedures.” AAM also recommends that before reopening “ensure that you have adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors for staff and visitors, to provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and to properly clean/disinfect your facilities.”

“Staff safety is paramount, both as we let our staff back in and the role we take in terms of reopening,” said Sara Devine at the Brooklyn Museum. “My concern as someone who is responsible for our admissions team is not only making sure that our staff is healthy but that they also feel comfortable and supported in all of this.”

Re-thinking the Visitor Experience

As museums prepare to reopen, museums are working to communicate to the public about what their visitor experience will look like. The International Council of Museums published a list for museums at the end of lockdown to help museums ensure the safety of the public and their staff. ICOM recommends changing public access points by adapting the flow of visitors to maintain social distancing. This includes avoiding lines, using ground markings to help ensure the recommended social distancing, installing protective screens and barriers between staff and visitors, closing any cloakrooms, creating a seperate entrance and exit to help with the flow of visitors, creating specific guided tour times and limit the size, and strengthening health measures at your institutions. 

“One of the things that we’re thinking of especially in the visitor communications area is how we’re conveying not only to visitors and the community about what has changed, what may be changing in the building while remaining true to our mission but also communicating what the expectation is to our visitors,” said Maureen Mangan, Director of Communications & Marketing at the Long Island Children’s Museum.  The museum has made changes to provide a safe and comfortable environment for guests and staff. “It is equally important to let visitors know that there have been changes in expectations from them to protect their fellow guests and our staff,” said Mangan. 

According to an article by Colleen Dilenscheider, “Meeting Visitor Needs” evolving to make people feel safe is an expectation that visitors have of museums. Colleen writes, “While we see that people intend to visit cultural organizations again in the relative near term, we also observe that a sizable percentage of visitors do not feel comfortable doing so without first observing significant operational changes.” 

The Long Island Children’s Museum anticipates a month long communications campaign about the new visitor experience and expectations from visitors ahead of reopening. “It is important for these communications to be a shared message to say that this is what our staff is doing for you and this is how you can help us.”

Visitor experience is going to change. AAM recommends that museums need to consider how to “limit person-to-person contact, monitor the number of visitors, and restrict or prohibit access to certain areas of the museum.” This could include online ticket sales, digital guides to visitors, regulating interactives, capacity restrictions, no or limited access to certain spaces, canceling or restricting group visits, guided tours, public programs, new signage and barriers to enforce social distancing, changing the flow through your museum, and more. 

Hillary Olson, the President & CEO of the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC), has used this time to try new visitor experiences. “I’m saying yes a lot […] saying yes to possibilities. We’ve had amazing results for online forest school and our online planetarium programs that I want to continue in the future.”  

Rochester Museum and Science Center’s Virtual Classroom

As visitor experience changes and increased safety measures for staff and visitors continues, museums are encouraged to continue to offer digital experiences. In a Cueseum article, “Tips & Strategies for Reopening Museums After CVOID-19 Closures” museums who have increased their digital engagement efforts through new programs, events, tours, etc. will “be of continued importance, even as organizations welcome a portion of their visitors back to their physical sites.” Museums like the RMSC who have created new online programs to provide opportunities for students to learn online have seen success and are reaching new audiences. Continuing online programming is also a consideration for the health and safety of high risk visitors. According to Cueseum’s article, “many museum patrons, including high-level members and donors, may be older than sixty-five, putting them in a high-risk category. They may need to continue to be socially distant for months to come. For these older audiences, it is essential to continue digital offerings to make them feel included.”

Future Casting—Finding Solutions

Finding new solutions and trying new ideas has been key for many institutions. “I think that there is something about partnering and doing these things together and working together as much as possible,” said Olson. “If there’s a gap being left then the bigger organizations need to fill that or help our smaller organizations by partnering with them.”

“In times like this where things are changing and things are changing quickly, it is also critical to look outside your industry,” said Peter Hyde, Owner at Peter Hyde Design and MANY Board Member. “A lot of these questions have come up before in various ways in other industries.” Looking at how exhibitions are designed in spaces that need to be easily cleaned on a daily basis, like hospitals, or examining visitor traffic flow through theme parks, etc. “It’s important not to be too insular and we should make sure that we are looking out to find solutions.”

Looking Ahead

As we move towards reopening, running scenarios for what a new normal might look like for your institution is critically important. These should  include contingency plans for when capacity is reduced, reduced capacity in-person program delivery and when events are canceled how they can be moved to a digital platform. 

“We are modeling a whole range of scenarios in terms of visitation, revenue...well into 2021 and we are heading towards a new operating plan that is sustainable for the future,” said Ann Campbell, Marketing Communications Manager at Corning Museum of Glass. “We recognize that the museum that closed on March 16 is not going to be the same museum when we reopen. Nothing is off the table. Every program needs to be examined, every assumption needs to be examined and this will look different if we are able to reopen in July versus reopening at the end of the summer. Every one of these modeling scenarios is different and we need to understand the implications of each of these scenarios including a potential second or third wave that closes us down again after we’ve reopened.” 

“The biggest mental shift for me has been to just switch to talk about reopening itself, even though we don’t have a date,” said Sara Devine, Brooklyn Museum. “it’s wonderful to start to think about what role we are playing and play in the future to help our communities and bring people together and that feels really good to talk about those things.”

Click here to listen to the full Virtual Meet-Up “Looking Ahead to Re-Opening Our Museums.”

Further Reading / Re-Opening Resources

Governor Cuomo's Additional Guidelines for Phased Plan to Re-open New York

AAM Resource Guide for Reopening

Visitor Experience Group: Reopening Your Institution

Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes

Museums and Social Distancing: A Planning Toolkit

Recommendations for Reopening: Art Industries

Coronavirus Disease 2019 Child Care, Schools, and Youth Programs

Back to Work Safely

Exploring the Future of "Hands-On" Museum Exhibits

Best Practices for Cleaning Play and Learning Spaces

COVID-19 Basics: Re-Entry to Cultural Sites Video 3   

Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections

Post Covid Balancing Act: A Strategy Primer for Museums

Workflow Recommendations For Reopening Museums  

Tips & Strategies For Reopening Museums After Covid-19 Closures

Preparing to Reopen - Strategy, Planning & Process on the Road to Reopening Museums

Museums and Social Distancing: A Planning Toolkit

GUIDELINE EXAMPLES (from the Museum Association of Arizona)

Best Practice Recommendations for Reopening Your Museum
Iowa Museum Association 

Museum “Open to the Public” Guideline Considerations  
Oklahoma Museums Association

Precautions for Museums during Covid-19 Pandemic
International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM)

Covid-19/Reopening Resources
Association for Living History, Farms and Agricultural Museums

How Museums in China Are Reopening Post-COVID-19 
Dragon Trail Interactive

COVID-19 Opening Protocol
Indiana State Museum and State Historic Sites  

The Museum Association of New York strengthens the capacity of New York State’s cultural community by supporting professional standards and organizational development. We provide advocacy, training, and networking opportunities so that museums and museum professionals may better serve their missions and communities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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