Museums and other indoor activities across New York are being allowed to reopen as coronavirus restrictions are cautiously eased. New York City is encouraging New Yorkers and people from the tri-state area to ‘staycation’ and help the city recover. (Aug. 24.)

AP Domestic

Dennis Kaiser leaned out of the scissor lift to reach the trumpeting angel. He gently brushed a vacuum cleaner hose along her outstretched arm.

For a minute, the sculpture and the art handler formed similar silhouettes in the sun-drenched American Wing.

One, carved of wood 120 years ago, was crafted at a time when the Industrial Revolution was transforming modern life. The other, as contemporary as could be, sucked up the accumulated dust of six months of coronavirus pandemic-required absence.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City reopens this week – Thursday to members and Saturday to the general public – after closing abruptly March 13. One of New York’s biggest tourist attraction, currently celebrating its 150th anniversary with a new exhibit, had never before closed for more than three days – and that was for bad weather.

Dennis Kaiser, art handler in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, cleans a trumpeting angel in Charles Engelhard Court. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

Now, although 20% of its staff has been laid off, furloughed or retired, its giant flowerpots left empty for months, and its Great Hall staircase dimmed to reduce light exposure, the Met is being readied for visitors.

Two giant white banners were unfurled last week on the museum’s front façade: “Dream,” one reads. “Together,” responds the other, both designed by the Japanese American artist Yoko Ono.  

“It was a really very uplifting and emotionally charged moment to see that work,” the museum’s director Max Hollein said in a Friday video call. 

Reopening the museum, he said, is a sign of the return to some semblance of normalcy in the city and the country, while many challenges, uncertainty and suffering remain part of daily life.

“You can find here respite, solace, maybe even energy again, passion, excitement,” said Hollein, a native of Austria. “All these things I would say: that’s what a museum is for and what art, in general, is for.”

Museums everywhere are struggling

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave permission earlier this month for New York City’s museums to reopen.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art also is planning to reopen soon, while other major city museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have not announced reopening plans. The Art Institute of Chicago has been open since late July and the St. Louis Art Museum since mid-June.

But this is a tough time to be a museum in America.

The financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing museums to reconsider their future. One out of every three museums may never reopen, according to a survey this summer by the American Alliance of Museums.

Of those that do reopen, more than 40% will have cut staff and will need to spend money to reopen safely, the survey found.

Signs about face masks greet visitors in the Great Hall. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

Tourism is a major source of income for many museums. At the Met, 70% of last year’s more than 7 million visitors came from outside the New York area. Today, there are few tourists in the Big Apple.

With all the problems America faces today, Hollein said he understands – and even agrees – that museum donations should not be the highest philanthropic priority.

But he thinks it would be a travesty to allow museums to die.

“The diversity of our cultural offerings is such an important part of the cultural fabric of this country, and the social fabric, and the cohesion,” Hollein said, adding that he’s particularly concerned about the future of smaller museums. “It’s important that they get supported through any means possible.”

And although the Met will, of course, survive, “this whole thing couldn’t have come at a worse time,” he said.

A museum is easier to close than open

Visitors to the Met will notice some differences when it reopens.

Hours will be limited, and the museum, normally open seven days a week, will be shuttered Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Per state law, all staff members and visitors will have to wear masks and maintain social distance. Temperature checks will be required for entrance.

More than 800 signs and stickers are being added throughout the museum to direct visitors and remind them to keep their distance from others. An 80-page document that took several staffers most of the summer to write dictates exactly where each sign will be placed and how traffic flow will be directed.

Stanchions are readied for signs to direct visitors throughout the museum. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

On one recent day, the stanchions were gathered in the Great Hall, as if at attention, waiting for their signs and to be relocated around the galleries.

Markers on the floor also will help direct visitors. In some areas, foot traffic will be one-way, though the museum is trying to give visitors as much freedom to wander as possible. 

“We have so much space for physical distancing,” said Cristina Ambroselli, manager of visitor experience. 

There will be no maps or audio guides – nothing to pick up, Ambroselli noted, including the coronavirus.

Wireless access has been improved throughout the museum during the pandemic, so visitors will be able to download maps and information on their phones instead. The museum, like many others, has spent the shutdown improving its digital offerings. 

Most spaces will be open, unless they’re too small to be safe, as in the interior of the Frank Lloyd Wright room, which visitors will be able to peer into, but not walk in, said Gillian Fruh, manager for exhibitions. 

Getting everything ready

Less than two weeks before opening day, there was still no water in the fountain surrounding the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur, and some of its statues were covered in protective cardboard. The wheels of two pushcarts echoed through the empty Great Hall.

Most of the lights were off in the new British galleries. Glass cases containing four centuries of treasures in porcelain, bronze and glass gave off a warm glow. Light damage is cumulative, Fruh said, so many fixtures have been turned off or dimmed for the last six months to protect the art.

The British galleries, opened just weeks before the museum shut down, were designed for close looking. But how, Fruh wondered aloud, “do you encourage close looking in a socially distant world?” 

She hopes all the signage, one-way directional flow and need for distance will help. “As with everything in the new COVID world, you have to move a bit slower, which in the case of art is kind of a good thing.”

The expansive American Wing felt particularly vacant with just Kaiser on his lift, and two workers standing outside the only restaurant that will reopen with the museum. “It’s still weird,” Kaiser said, to have so few people in the museum. “Being around the art feels good.”

The emptiness can feel special, or creepy. 

“There’s something really magical about being in the building when there aren’t any visitors,” Fruh said. The museum feels bigger now that it’s been empty of visitors for so long, she and Kaiser agreed. And, she admits, “walking by the mummies freaks me out a little now.”

Hollein said he finds the empty museum depressing. “You feel deprived of something, of the interactions you have with the art, you have with the visitors, and that you can have together with the staff,” he said.

He, Fruh, Ambroselli, and Kaiser all agreed: it’s time for visitors to return.


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