Europe's museums begin reopening, cautiously, with new rules

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Europe's museums begin reopening, cautiously, with new rules
A visitor wearing a face mask walks through Taiwanese artis Li Mingwei's "Our Peacable Kingdom" installation, at the Martin Gropius Bau exhibition hall in Berlin on May 11, 2020, after the venue re-opened its doors to the public following a relaxation of lockdown restrictions due to the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. John MACDOUGALL / AFP.

by Thomas Rogers

BERLIN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Elli Gericke, 20, was among the first visitors to the Berlinische Galerie as it reopened Monday after an eight-week closure. In accordance with the art museum’s new rules, she was wearing a blue cloth mask and keeping at least 5 feet from other people.

She said that she liked the main exhibition — a retrospective of Umbo, an avant-garde German photographer — and expressed relief about seeing art in person after months of being mostly indoors. But, she added, she felt restricted by the new regulations.

“You can’t relax when you look at the images, you can’t breathe,” she said. “It’s not the same as before.”

With confirmed coronavirus infections declining across Europe in recent weeks, several countries have announced plans to reopen museums, and Germany is among the earliest. Museum directors have become pioneers in figuring out how to kick-start cultural institutions in the midst of a pandemic, and in reinventing the museum experience for the COVID-19 era.

Germany’s 16 states have set their own timelines for easing the lockdown measures. Museums in Berlin were allowed to reopen on May 4, but many remain closed. Some, like the Berlinische Galerie, took an extra week to sort out logistics and bring in safety procedures, reopening Monday. Major institutions like the Gemäldegalerie and the Altes Museum reopened Tuesday.

Although the state government in Berlin has mandated ground rules for hygiene and social distancing, it has largely been up to the institutions to iron out the details, including whether to require masks. For museum directors, this involves balancing public safety against the desire to allow people to freely engage with art; for visitors, this means navigating a patchwork of new rules.

Most, but not all, museums require visitors to wear masks. Some have added signs directing visitors along certain paths, or have instituted online ticketing systems to stagger entry times and prevent crowds. Others have eliminated audio guides, or asked visitors to bring their own earphones. Many locations have installed Plexiglas screens to protect staff members, and group tours have been canceled.

At the Berlinische Galerie, visitors are informed on arrival that they must wear face coverings and abide by social distancing rules, and they are encouraged to use the newly installed hand-sanitizer dispensers.

Thomas Köhler, the director of the Berlinische Galerie, said in a phone interview that the new protocol was “not pleasant, but it is necessary.” He added, “I think the joy that people will get from being back in the museum will be bigger than the inconvenience.”

Governments in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Italy have all announced dates in May or June by which they hope to have museums open, with similar safety measures to those in Berlin.

Some museums in the Czech Republic, France, Spain and Switzerland reopened this week or are set to do so in the coming days. In France, some small, local museums were allowed to reopen Monday, but the government has yet to announce dates for major institutions like the Louvre.

As in Germany, many museums did not open their doors on the first day they were allowed; instead, cautious administrators are taking time to make changes and retrain employees before the public is allowed in.

Berlin State Museums, an umbrella group overseeing 17 museums in the city, including some of its largest and most prestigious, decided to start small, reopening just four of the institutions under its control on Tuesday. Christine Haak, the organization’s deputy director-general, said in a phone interview that she wanted to observe how visitors behave in the spaces before deciding about the rest. The museum will inevitably feel different to many visitors, she added.

“People are aware they cannot be too close to the art, because an alarm will go off,” Haak said, “but now they also need to keep a distance from one another, and that’s a new experience.”

With tourism at a standstill, however, many museums are anticipating lower-than-usual visitor numbers. That is likely to help social distancing, but it also means that spaces that depend significantly on international guests face an uncertain financial future.

In a normal week, the DDR Museum, a private exhibition space providing an interactive experience of life in communist East Germany, attracts as many as 2,000 people a day, the vast majority of them people who do not live in Berlin. Its director, Gordon Freiherr von Godin, estimates that number has dropped to fewer than 50 since the museum reopened on May 4. “We are not making any income,” he said by phone.

Admittedly, the DDR Museum’s interactive concept, which invites visitors to handle display items and open cupboards, is a tricky sell during a pandemic. Its slogan, “History You Can Touch,” probably is not helping either.

The museum has installed hand-sanitizer stations and suggested, but not mandated, that guests wear masks. A staff member also cleaned surfaces continually with disinfectant spray, Freiherr von Godin said.

Charlie Goldsmith, 26, and Paz Diman, 39, both of Berlin, were the only two visitors to the exhibition Monday afternoon. Diman said she had been unsure about what protective gear to bring. “We thought we might need to bring gloves,” she said after climbing out of a Trabant, a typical East German car, “but it’s kind of a relief not to have that.”

Goldsmith, who was celebrating his birthday, said he was comfortable touching the items with his bare hands: The lack of other visitors made any concerns about the virus irrelevant, he added.

A few blocks away, a line was forming at the door of the German Historical Museum, where a new exhibition about the life and work of the German American intellectual Hannah Arendt was opening. The show featured personal items belonging to Arendt, as well as numerous video and audio recordings.

The museum has mandated masks and provided disinfectant wipes to clean the audio stations, but it decided not to institute a guided pathway through the exhibition. “We were nervous, because these measures only work if people follow the rules,” the museum’s vice president, Ulrike Kretzschmar, said at the museum Monday. “But everyone is being extremely disciplined.”

Although on Monday the space was approaching its reduced capacity of 65 visitors — compared to the regular 200 — people were moving through carefully and calmly. Kretzschmar said that visitors were spending, on average, two hours in the show.

Indeed, for some at the exhibition, the new measures were more of a boon than an inconvenience. Katrin Neuburger, 40, said that other visitors’ newfound awareness of their surroundings had created a more focused, harmonious museum experience. “These days, you feel like everything is slowing down generally, anyway,” she said. “But it’s actually kind of nice.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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