Reopening museums after Covid-19

After a long hard summer, museums in the UK have finally reopened with new safety guidelines in place. Visitors are required to book ahead, encouraged to wear masks and keep socially distant when they visit. Does it work?

We visited four museums to find out.

Wallace Collection

One of London’s pre-eminent House Museums with a fine collection of Rococco paintings and furniture, the Wallace Collection is an Intimate Museum which invites close reading of art. The Wallace Collection’s new system, asks people to order online

The tour starts on the first floor. Visitors climb the grand staircase with its mythological paintings by Boucher. Then you follow a preset route. Each room has signposted a maximum number of people. It worked quite well.

The grand hall with the Old Masters was empty allowing you time to stare at the Velazquez, Rubens, Canaletto and Poussin.

Weenix, Jan Baptist, 1621-1660/1661; A Coast Scene with Classical Ruins
Jan Baptist Weenix, A Coast Scene with Classical Ruins; The Wallace Collection

Titian at the National Gallery

The Titian exhibition at the National Gallery was one of the more high profile closures following the lockdown in March 2020. Curators had brought together

Philip II commissioned Titain to paint six works of art based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He gave Titain free reign to paint the works as he saw fit. The resulting works have been seen as the great exemplar of artistic genius.

Titain painted with voluptuous colours, creating sensuous and luxurious canvases that elude a sexual charisma. A lot of people visiting the exhibition were fanning themselves as they walked through.

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Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne; The National Gallery

You need to prebook tickets to visit the national gallery. You can then follow three routes through the museum. We started on one route and finished on another and I am not totally sure how. Each routes, lasting about 40 – 60 minutes, offers a range of artists from various time periods.

The National Gallery’s collections of Poussins is excellent. It is worth a visit to see The Adoration of the Golden Calf alone. This painting which depicts a scene from Exodus perhaps like everything has resonances today. Moses left the Israelites for 40 days and 40 nights to commune with G-d on Mount Sinai. The Israelites panicked and demanded that Aaron make them a god. He melted down their jewellery and earrings to create a Golden Calf, which they them worshipped. The scene shows this moment as Moses descends the mountain in the background.

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Nicholas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf

Warhol at Tate Modern

The Warhol show at Tate Modern was another high profile closure in March. It’s the first major exhibition of his at the Tate Modern in 20 years. His best work was the album cover for the Velvet Underground, but he also liked soup cans.

Warhol instinctively draw on classical motifs to create a modern art form. Here a screen print of Marilyn Monroe’s gorgeous lips is a modern Venus Pudica; at once both alluring and vulnerable, served up to a [male] audience who idolise her, a powerful qween. Here, scenes of death recall Hellenistic art of the

Tate Modern is perhaps the museum best suited to social distancing with its large spaces. Ultimately however the museum has built itself on a stuff-them-in-model. Even before lockdown critics and audience members were complaining about the overcrowding of particular exhibitions. Post-lockdown, the hope was that the exhibitions would become less busy and more accessible, offering all audience members a chance to study and engage with the art on show.

The Warhol exhibition was not as bad as some shows, but it was still very busy. Some rooms were closed and others were crammed. The curators should have put a little more thought into how they used the space and redesigned the layout for the new world we find ourselves in.

Conservatory at Barbican

The main exhibition space, the Conservatory and the Curve Gallery at the Barbican have also all reopened. The Conservatory which is normally only open on Sundays, can now be visited throughout the week. Visitors must book ahead and follow the one way system.

The giant greenhouse feels like a tropical island with its brutal concrete cliffs and lush vegetation. It was planted in 1980 and now has 1,500 plants. There are two ponds for Koi and ghost carp from Japan and one for terrapins. Birds also fly in from outside.

It’s a lovely peaceful experience in the middle of London. The positive energy of the plants and the fish create good vibes. The one way system is easy to follow and crowding is avoided.

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Does it work?

These are hopeful first steps. The broader question about whether we can reopen social spaces safely for staff and visitors and still “control the virus” is uncertain. My own feelings after visiting the four museums, is that this is unlikely.

In the UK, the communications about what people should do to ensure their safety and the safety of other people has become muddled and the government has chose to focus on encouraging people to spend money again.

The other bit of uncertainty is how long will this particular period last. Many of the museums seem to have made only temporary changes to their spaces. This reflects their precarious financial situation but also points to a confidence that things will be over by Christmas, which I cannot help think is misplaced.

Nevertheless it was nice to visit museums, to see art in person but also to get out.

A big thank you to the staff at all the museums who made this possible. Their safety has to be one of the priorities for museum management as they plan to make more of their spaces and collections available to the public.

Photo References

A Coast Scene with Classical Ruins by JB Weenix (Public Domain)

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian (Public Domain)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicholas Poussin (Public Domain)