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Europe’s Museums Begin to Reopen With New Rules and “Social-Distancing Devices”

By Sarah Buder

May 19, 2020

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In Italy—the one-time epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe—museums, galleries, and archaeological sites began to resume operations starting May 18. 

Photo by Mara Ze/Shutterstock

In Italy—the one-time epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe—museums, galleries, and archaeological sites began to resume operations starting May 18. 

At various European institutions re-emerging from coronavirus lockdowns, ticketed time slots, plexiglass shields, and mandatory mask protocols provide a glimpse into what the “new normal” might look like.

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As European countries begin to ease the coronavirus lockdowns that saw cultural institutions shuttered for the past two months, a number of museums across the continent are starting to slowly reopen their doors with caution.

In Italy—the one-time epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe—museums, galleries, and archaeological sites began to resume operations starting May 18. On Friday, May 22, Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), which includes the cathedral with Brunelleschi’s dome and the Crypt of Santa Reparata, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, Giotto’s belltower, and the Historical Museum, reopened to the public. When it did, the Italian museum complex became the world’s first to introduce wearable social-distancing devices that beep and buzz to ensure guests remain at safe lengths from one another.

In a May 16 announcement, Florence’s Duomo stated that all visitors to the cathedral will be asked to wear the necklace-like social-distancing gadgets, which softly beep, vibrate, and flash when two people approach within a range of 2 meters (6.5 feet) of each other. The devices—which are anonymous and don’t track personal data—will be handed to individuals for free upon entry and will be disinfected between usage, according to museum officials. In the announcement, the Duomo also indicated that temperature checks and face masks will be compulsory for visitors and hand sanitizer will widely be available on-site after the May 22 reopening. Through the end of the month, admission to the cathedral complex will remain free to the public (although online ticket booking is mandatory). Starting June 1, however, the Duomo’s opening hours will be modified and ticketing will also shift from a single ticket for the entire complex to five separate passes for each monument, as The Florentine reported.

Museums in other European countries began to reopen with similar safety measures in early and mid-May—providing a glimpse at some of the COVID-19 protocols that might emerge as the “new normal” for museums in this era. 

Compulsory masks, temperature screenings, and shielded ticket counters

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In late April, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), a global network of more than 35,000 modern and contemporary museum experts, issued a set of recommended safety guidelines for art institutions planning to reopen after coronavirus lockdowns. CIMAM’s guidelines indicated that museums should implement temperature screenings for all visitors and consider turning away people who appear unwell (or who’ve been to areas with a widespread outbreak in past 14 days). The list of COVID-19 safety precautions also suggested making protective masks mandatory for museum visitors, as well as suspending all guided tours and large events. 

Europe’s Plan for Reopening Borders and Travel Within the EU

Germany’s museums were among the first to reopen in Europe starting from May 4, following similar guidelines issued by the Brandenburg Museum Association. Many Berlin institutions, such as the Berlinische Galerie, Gemäldegalerie, and Altes Museum, reopened during the week of May 11 to sort out logistics and safety measures, which include plexiglass shields at ticket counters, the elimination of cash payments, and mandatory protective masks for all museum visitors. In addition to following these recommendations, many museums in Berlin and Munich are also reserving special time slots for visitors from “high-risk groups” and extending opening hours to allow for social distancing.

In Austria and Switzerland, various museums began to resume operations from May 11, but some major institutions in Vienna, such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum, have postponed their reopening to the end of the month. In Basel, the Fondation Beyeler has introduced timed tickets to control crowds. The Swiss museum added extra restrooms and hand sanitizer machines for visitors and staff as well as plexiglass dividers at ticket counters. (All guests will also be asked to wear masks and keep more than six feet from others during their visit to the Basel museum, which currently features an exhibition of works by American painter Edward Hopper, whose solitude-themed art has already been linked to today’s atmosphere of social distancing.)

As of May 19, several museums in Belgium began to welcome back visitors, among them the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which comprises six museums in Brussels (including the Old Masters Museum), and the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp. All individuals older than 12 are required to wear masks in public spaces, in accordance with Belgian rules.

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Rome’s Villa Borghese and the Capitoline Museums also reopened on May 19, preceded by the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples and Turin’s Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, which reopened the day prior with compulsory mask guidelines (and a maximum of 15 people allowed at once in each gallery, for the latter). The quincentennial Raphael exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale—which opened for just three days before COVID-19 lockdowns forced its closure—will reopen in Rome from June 2 through August 30. Tickets for the show need to be booked online in advance, and upon entry, visitors will be organized into groups of six, then escorted through the exhibition with a guard who will “chaperone” each 80-minute visit, according to Scuderie del Quirinale officials.

On June 1, the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum are slated to reopen, followed by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence on June 3. Most of Italy’s major cultural institutions have annouced security measures that include mandatory masks, online ticket reservations, and thermoscanner checks.

In France, a number of smaller museums resumed operations after May 11, such as the Giacometti Institute in Paris. Hugely popular cultural institutions in the French capital, such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre—the world’s most visited museum—are slated to reopen on June 23 and July 6, respectively.

Italy Plans to Reopen to Travelers on June 3—but Not to Americans

When will U.S. museums begin to reopen?

On Saturday, May 23, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston became the first major art institution to reopen in the United States after nationwide coronavirus closures that began in mid-March. According to its website, the museum has instituted strict safety measures: Wearing masks will be mandatory inside the building and visitors will have their temperatures taken before entering the galleries. Additionally, museum capacity will be kept at below 25 percent on a room-by-room basis so that visitors can maintain social distancing at a minimum of six feet. The building’s water fountains, café, and coat check will remain closed, and visitors are “strongly encouraged” to purchase timed-entry tickets online in advance to eliminate cash transactions and ensure proper capacity.

Meanwhile, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art postponed its target July 1 reopening date, announcing tentative plans to reopen in mid-August or “perhaps a few weeks later.” The museum said that major safety precautions will likely include reduced days and hours, and all tours, talks, concerts, and events at the Met will be canceled through 2020.

This article originally appeared online on May 19, 2020; it was updated on May 29, 2020, to include current information.

>>Next: When Will We Be Able to Travel to Europe?

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