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Faced with blank canvas, BMA reimagines safe museum experience in coronavirus era as it reopens

Behind the scenes as the Baltimore Museum of Art re-opens.
Behind the scenes as the Baltimore Museum of Art re-opens. (Baltimore Sun)

With every face mask, bottle of hand sanitizer and pair of disposable gloves it acquires, the Baltimore Museum of Art is moving one more socially distanced step closer to reopening fully to the public, six months after locking its doors as the coronavirus pandemic descended on Maryland.

The state’s largest museum began welcoming visitors Sept. 16, though the capacity was limited and galleries will reopen in phases.

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The reopening is the final step in planning that began in April to ensure the safety of museum visitors and employees — a formidable challenge that staff members approached diligently, but with trepidation. Despite the exhaustive planning, success is not guaranteed.

A Baltimore Sun reporter permitted to attend two remote planning sessions caught a glimpse of the innumerable decisions required for reopening a museum, from regulating the flow of visitors through the artist Katherina Grosse’s large-scale fabric room installation to determining whether informational handouts normally left in galleries could potentially transmit COVID-19.

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“It feels slightly daunting to have to set a date and say, ’Now the museum is entirely open,' ” Melanie Martin, the museum’s chief innovation officer, said during a July 9 planning session. “We have all these ideas, but we don’t know what will work and what won’t.”

Planning during the pandemic

Reopening the BMA in the midst of a pandemic meant that art historians and other staff members put down their scholarly treatises and began grappling instead with the intricacies of ultraviolet lighting and high-efficiency air filters — both newly installed throughout the BMA’s galleries.

It meant the museum’s security guards field-tested seven brands of face masks to find one comfortable enough to wear for up to eight hours.

It included removing half of the hangers in the museum cloakroom to ensure that guests’ coats don’t touch.

It involved spending $40,000 to buy supplies, including 10,000 face masks, 4,000 pairs of disposable gloves and 6,250 alcohol wipes. It required stockpiling 48 gallons of hand sanitizer and 42 gallons of spray sanitizer. That’s just enough supplies to last the museum about six months, according to estimates by Daniel Bleemke, the museum’s engineering director.

But there’s no certainty that enough visitors will return to the museum to make restocking necessary.

Museums outside Maryland that reopened earlier this summer have recorded attendance 10% to 30% of pre-pandemic levels, according to Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, which helps institutions adapt to social and cultural changes.

Baltimore’s three additional art museums also scheduled reopening dates in September: the Walters Art Museum (Sept 16), The American Visionary Art Museum (Sept. 25) and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (Sept. 10.).

“It’s unbelievably important that we do this well,” said the BMA’s director, Christopher Bedford.

The pandemic has proved so unpredictable that it’s been next to impossible for museum administrators to devise a blueprint for a successful reopening.

The American Association of Museums, the Washington-based advocacy group that runs the center, has tried repeatedly — and without success — to track museum reopenings nationwide. As COVID-19 infections spike in some parts of the country while receding in others, Merritt said, the list changes so quickly that it’s almost instantly out of date.

For example, California museums closed in March, reopened in June, and were closed again by the governor in July.

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Regionally, only a handful of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums are currently welcoming visitors, including: the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in western Virginia, the National Museum of African American History, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery and the outdoor plaza at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Several major New York museums began greeting guests in late August, but the Guggenheim won’t reopen until Oct. 3.

The pandemic may have closed some institutions permanently. According to a survey conducted this summer by the museum association, one-third of museums nationwide aren’t confident they have sufficient financial resources to survive.

“There is a real concern that many museums will go out of business,” Merritt said.

“It’s unbelievably important that we do this well.”


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Even museums like the BMA that have weathered the crisis must make fundamental changes to their visitors’ experience.

Open but different

The BMA will reopen in three phases. The museum’s marquee attraction, the Cone Collection of post-Impressionist masterpieces, will be available to the public in the second phase, which could begin as soon as Sept. 23. The staggered approach will allow museum staff to evaluate the new procedures and tweak those that don’t work.

“Are the signs for the bathroom adequate?” Martin asked rhetorically. “Do we need to make adjustments in the way we’re helping people navigate the galleries?”

Initially, the BMA will admit up to 350 visitors per day or 25% of capacity, and aims to increase to 525 museumgoers by Sept. 30 as more galleries open. Visitors are urged to reserve free, timed-entry tickets by going to the BMA’s website at artbma.org.

Masks will be required throughout the museum and groups limited to five people.

Most museums that are reopening are implementing similar changes, Merritt said. While she doesn’t argue that the new social distancing regulations are unnecessary, Merritt fears they could undo decades of efforts to make America’s cultural warehouses more accessible to historically underserved populations.

“The kinds of changes museums are being forced to make represents a pivot from the ‘Walk in, let’s go to the museum experience,‘ " she said.

“Now, you have to plan ahead, figure out how to book advance tickets and stand in line. Not everyone has internet access. We’ve been trying for years to take down barriers to equitable access for people who aren’t mainstream visitors. Now, we’re putting barriers back up.”

That’s why the BMA is reserving up to 30% of its tickets for walk-up guests. And it’s why the staff decided against imposing a one-way traffic flow through the galleries.

“We didn’t want to interrupt people’s free exploration of the museum,” Martin said. “We didn’t want to do anything that could interfere with our visitors engaging with the artworks.”

Merritt said the past six months might have been the longest period in American history when citizens have been cut off from the nation’s cultural treasures.

Some museumgoers say they have felt that deprivation keenly.

For instance, Kira Wisniewski, 36, of Mount Vernon can’t wait to walk through a museum again. Before the pandemic, she visited the BMA monthly.

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On her most recent visit — the day before the pandemic abruptly closed cultural attractions statewide — Wisniewski was so struck by the Baltimore artist Jo Smail’s powerful abstract artworks that she wrote down a text fragment embedded in one collage: “How do we survive horror without laughter?”

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Wisniewski has asked herself that question more than once during the past six months.

“Before the pandemic, I didn’t recognize how important it is to me to see art in person,” she said, “It’s a very nurturing experience that I took for granted, and I have really missed it.”

If you go

The Baltimore Museum of Art at North Charles and 31st streets will be open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. All exhibits are free.

The museum is resuming its “2020 Vision” series showcasing the achievements of female artists (including several Baltimoreans) that was launched before the pandemic. On view will be:

Sept. 16: Artworks by Shinique Smith, Ellen Lesperance and Mickalene Thomas.

Sept. 23: Solo presentations by Zackary Drucker, Katharina Grosse, Valerie Maynard, Ana Mendieta, Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young, Howardena Pindell, Jo Smail and Shan Wallace.

Sept. 30: “Candice Breitz: Too Long, Didn’t Read,” an exhibition of two video installations narrated by actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. Also, “Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art” an exhibit of Central African works related to motherhood in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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