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Museums prepare to reopen amid pandemic

Stefan Dege | Sarah Hucal
April 30, 2020

As Germany lifts restrictions, museums all over the country are set to reopen to the public. Yet putting the necessary measures in place is no easy task.

A woman with a mask rides a bike past the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Riedl

There's a lot to be done before art Museum Barberini, located in Potsdam, near Berlin, can reopen to the public on May 6, says Dorothee Entrupp, who is coordinating the reopening preparations to adhere to protection measures in COVID times. "We have developed a sophisticated hygiene and security concept," Entrupp told Deutsche Welle.

Masks, she says, will be compulsory from day one, and physical distancing rules must be observed. Visitors are guided through the multi-story building on a circular path so as not to cross by one another. Ticket offices will have so-called spit protection walls, and audio-guide devices will no longer be available as they pose as germ magnets. Instead, visitors can download an info app on their own mobile phones. Paper tickets are also a thing of the past — they are now only available online, and for limited time slots. "The safety and health of our employees and visitors is our top priority," emphasizes Entrupp.

Palais Barberini Potsdam
Physical distancing rules will be enforced at the Museum Barberini in PotsdamImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

Many German museums currently have similar plans in place, as well as similarly uncertain opening dates. The new standards require that museums figure out how to make their spaces conform to hygiene and social distancing regulations. "From a purely technical point of view, I see few problems," says Eckart Köhne, president of the German Association of Museums. "We have large spaces, and we know how admission processes can comply with all the new regulations."

Eckart Köhne, president of the German Association of Museums
Eckart Köhne, president of the German Association of MuseumsImage: Badisches Landesmuseum/Foto: Uli Deck

Of course, one could not immediately return to normal operations, Köhne told DW. "But why should it be more difficult to open a museum than, say, a car dealership?"

Opening under strict conditions 

To be able to comply with the strict hygiene requirements, the Association of Museums has already demanded additional funding. More staff is needed, although museums will turn less of a profit and see fewer visitors, the association's managing director, David Vuillaume, told DW.

In 2019, the 7,000 museums across Germany had nearly 115 million visitors. But since the middle of March when they closed their doors, the stream of visitors has inevitably dried up.

Hermann Parzinger
Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage FoundationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Brakemeier

"It's not trivial to reopen a museum," Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, overseeing Berlin's state museums, told German news agency dpa. Berlin's world-renowned museums plans to only slowly reopen their doors during the coronavirus crisis.

The state museums, which are supported by the federal government, include 13 collections in 19 museums. Many are located on Museum Island in the center of Berlin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been visited by an average of three million people a year.

Yet, exactly which of these museums will open soonest — and how — is still a topic of discussion. "The state museums in Berlin are working on opening a few selected museums to limited public access, if possible by mid-May at the latest," wrote the Berlin state museums' administration in a statement.

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Making use of the pause

In Thuringia, up to 20 museums want to reopen this week, and the region's State Museum Association has provided them with best-practice recommendations, ranging from keeping their distance to visitor guidance and the protection of employees and visitors. "Our hygiene concept is in place," reports Matthias Hartmann, head of the Erfurt Natural History Museum. Normally up to 5,000 people come to these collections every month.

The Thuringia Apothekenmuseum
The Thuringia Apothekenmuseum reopened on April 28, like other museums in the German stateImage: Stadt Langensalza

Thomas Müller, head of the Nordhausen grain distillery and the private museum belonging to it, looks forward to the day it starts again: "We are well prepared," Müller told DW. Like many, they have used the extra time to check items off their to-do list. During the past weeks, employees photographed, inventoried and digitalized the 5,000 exhibition items. "Our new multimedia museum guide now takes visitors through the old distillery," says Müller, "but we have to do so without tasting events for the time being."

New digital offerings

Many museums are also taking advantage of the downtime by expanding online offerings. Preparations are in full swing at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, which specializes in modern art. The museum, like many, has expanded its digital options and launched a seven-part video series that presents works from the current show, "Mapping the Collection." "During the corona period, we massively boosted our digital program," said spokeswoman Sonja Hempel.

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In Dresden, authorities have announced that state museums will be allowed to open from May 4. The State Art Collection of Dresden, which comprises over 15 museums, will be among the most anticipated openings in the eastern German state.

On May 4, tours of the collections housed in the Residenzschloss will resume, including those in the Green Vault, where a spectacular jewel heist took place last November. Yet going a step further, the State Art Collections has also launched an educational program for children stuck at home during the outbreak. A program called "How high is…" allows children to learn to use a 450-year-old mathematical instrument in the museum's collection, for example.

Ausstellung in der Bundeskunsthalle - "Wir Kapitalisten" | Modell der Werft der Vereinigten Ostindische Kompanie
The exhibition 'We Capitalists' at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn will be extendedImage: DW/S. Dege

Yet, despite impressive films, virtual 360-degree tours and much more, a visit to the museum in the flesh is simply not replaceable. "We've learned during this period that you can't show everything digitally!" said Sven Bergmann of the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn.

After their reopening, the Bundeskunsthalle museum intends to extend its show "We Capitalists." Opened just one day before the coronavirus-related closure, it was the shortest exhibition in the history of the Kunsthalle.

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist