Museum Operations in the age of Covid19


Wayne Atherholt is a thirty-year museum veteran and former art museum director who is director of cultural affairs for the City of St. Petersburg.  Photo: Courtesy Helen Tilston


Each state in the United States will have a different plan.  In Florida, museums may open at 25% capacity starting Monday, 4th May 2020, as long as it isn’t interactive exhibits such as children’s science centers.  But prior to opening, there is an awful lot to consider when operating in a safe environment and there is no rule book on how to do this and very little information online.  We provide this information as a courtesy for our St Petersburg museums and for the entire museum community understanding that each museum is different and will be able to re-open on their own schedule depending on availability of sanitizer, masks, new operations manuals and a capable staff.


Start Your Museum or Attraction Plan for Re-opening

While museums have been closed for over a month in most cases, the time is coming to start thinking about what does your museum look like in operation during the threat of Covid19. And just because you will be allowed to re-open, doesn’t mean you will return to operational activities from two months ago. There is a lot to consider.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, and recommendations will likely change and change again, this will help you and your staff to start planning for the day that eventually will arrive when you will be able to open your doors again. And while re-opening at some point is going to happen, it certainly can’t happen any time soon without serious planning, purchasing, retraining and communicating to the general public.

Guest Experience Questions

Let’s first take a look at the guest experience. Assuming you’ve communicated that you’re open and what the expectations and new reality is, have a look at what your guest will experience right the way through the museum experience.When they arrive will they need to touch doors? And if they do, will there be contactless hand sanitizer nearby? Who fills it? Can you even get it from a supplier?

On to the admissions desk or box office. Is there a protective shield for staff working with the public? Is the floor marked for physical distancing for the general public while they wait in a queue? Will staff be wearing gloves? Will they be trained in the new reality of handling money and by whom? What will the procedures be for cleaning this area and how often? And who does it?

This is just the start of a visit. If you go through an entire visitor experience, you’ll discover there are areas where you will need to make major changes. Perhaps your museum lends itself to a linear experience where flow is controlled and there is a clear route to take.

You’ve probably seen the one way markings in supermarkets!  As you can see there are a lot of questions and the answers are in many cases not that easy.

Learning from our Asian colleagues

As American and European museums look to what their new normal will look like, we can learn an awful lot from Asian attractions and museums. Many, especially indoor attractions (i.e. museums), reopened and had to close again. This is particularly true in China, Hong Kong and Japan.

Here are some of the new procedures that have been and are being used by Asian counterparts that likely will create a framework for other museums and attractions:

  1. Limiting visitor numbers – Some theme parks have cut their visitor caps by 50% which will allow visitors to feel much more safe. With indoor attractions it is even more critical to limit the number of visitors. There are ticketing systems that can handle this online and in advance as well.  In Florida, museums have been allowed to open at 25% of capacity.
  2. Taking temperatures – This has become fairly standard at Asian attractions and likely would be part of any re-opening for American, British and European museums.
  3. Cashless payments only – While much of America still hasn’t gone to contactless payments, there is still that option with the contactless credit cards and Apple/Google pay. Otherwise, the old school pin pad can be used but that in itself creates a disinfecting issue after it is used.
  4. Health certificates/QR codes – In some countries citizens are given certificates or QR codes and only those that meet certain requirements are allowed in. I don’t see that happening in America which makes some of these other options all the more critical.  Consider testing for all staff and letting the public know this is your standard operating procedure.
  5. Masks – These are worn by guests and in some cases required. Same would go for staff. Would you feel safe going to an indoor space that doesn’t require masks? And do you have a supplier for these yet?
  6. Extra cleaning – It goes without saying that museums and attractions will need to revisit their cleaning schedules and most likely invest in additional labor to keep their attractions clean. It will also require materials and cleansers.
  7. Hand sanitizer – This would need to be at any point of contacts such as doors, toilets, box office, etc.  It should be contactless as well.
  8. Guides – Tour guides will be a thing of the past for now. Consider disposable guides that can be recycled (but not used over and over without sanitizing and then who is going to trust that).
  9. Controlling traffic patterns – Supermarkets learned this early on. They are now a series of one way aisles. Many audio guided blockbuster exhibitions ran this way for years. Think about your museum as a linear story – tell it – and make your guests feel safer.
  10. Those who operate retail and food/beverage facilities will need to work on additional measures for those industries as well.
  11. Experiential exhibits – For those museums that have some experiential exhibits, especially children’s museums, there is an entire layer of Covid19 issues surrounding the safe operations of a facility like that. This is primarily aimed at guiding art museums or museums with limited touch exhibits to a plan. A hands-on museum will require a considerable shift in how it operates.  In Florida, this type of museum has not been allowed to re-open while others have.

Rethink the Communications Plan

You’ll need to work in tandem with local officials as well as state officials and your local DMO (Destination Management Organisation) on communicating the measures you’re taking to make the traveling public safe while visiting your attraction.

This isn’t intended to provide tips on communication but once your attraction opens it will need to be communicated in a much more personal way than whatever you were doing before.  Likely you will be working with more locals and drive market visitors initially as the public gets used to traveling under new conditions. But like so much, what is communicated is likely to change considerably.

Be prepared. Be cautious. And be what museums are: trustworthy.

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