Governor Gregg Abbott’s guidelines this week for businesses re-opening in Texas caught museums off-guard. Museums and libraries are the only non-profit arts groups included among all the retail operations, restaurants, movie chains, etc. As a result, most museums had no immediate plans for reopening — and they’ve been scrambling to determine when — or if — they should open at all. Because reopening safely will take more than just controlling the size of their crowds.
It would seem a simple enough solution, though: A museum would limit the number of visitors to maintain social distancing and help slow the spread of COVID-19. Just sell fewer tickets. Or have a guard at the door keep track of how many people are coming through. Stores have been doing this for weeks now.
But how many staff members will be needed to police galleries so people follow social distancing? Should museums supply masks for visitors who show up without one? Should it bar those ticketholders from entering? How will restrooms be kept safe?
Most museum administrators say they’re simply not opening Friday. They need more time to work out such issues.
And some museums face even more complications.
Doug Roberts is the public engagement officer for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. He notes that hands-on exhibits are expressly forbidden by the new guidelines — but hands-on learning is at the heart of the museum’s mission.
“Our history has been one of hands-on learning for 80 years,” he says. “So we have to extract the hands-on. And that’s actually a pretty big challenge for us because we were really infusing hands-on things through everything.”
So does the museum administration re-think different exhibits –which will take time, trouble and money? Or limit some of them in various ways? Or just simply put up a “hands off” sign on all the hands-on attractions?
But Roberts says, interactive displays are a major reason families would want to escape the same four walls they’ve been looking at for two months. Shut all those down, and you’ve seriously narrowed the museum’s appeal — and what it does. The Fort Worth museum also has traditionally given children a degree of freedom to explore. That’s part of its mission as well – fostering curiosity.
“Parents will bring in their kids and kind of release their kids,” says Roberts. “And so we need to make sure that they’re not encouraged to let their kids roam — so how do we make that happen? We’re just trying to work through all that right now.”
And, like many arts groups, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History has furloughed much of its staff. It’s currently operating with a skeleton crew. If the museum’s going to reopen, possibly sometime in July, Roberts says, one immediate consideration will be which employees to bring back.
And how many.