Contact tracing, timed tickets and plexiglass galore: How five Toronto museums are revamping for Covid times
Museums and art galleries are a crucial part of Toronto’s cultural landscape. When Toronto announced they could re-open for phase 2, some flung their doors open immediately while others took a little extra time to implement new protocols. We spoke with five Toronto museum directors about the new policies, capacity limits and physical changes they’ve had to implement at their institutions.
Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum
“It has been quite a complicated time for the world over the past four months, and certainly for the ROM as well. We closed to the public on March 13, the day before March Break, which is the second-busiest time of the year for us. As a result, the financial impact was sudden and profound. We are likely to see 50 per cent of our typical attendance for the remainder of the fiscal year, so right now we are working on creative ways of boosting our funding so the ROM can continue to be a place for connection and community. I’d like to stress how grateful we are to our Friends of the ROM—members and donors who continue to support us every day. They’re a big reason why we can continue operations.
“Throughout the closure, questions of how and when it will be safe to reopen were top of mind. We’ve been in close consultation with the provincial government, health officials and colleagues from around the world, figuring out what changes we will have to make to the museum. There’s a certain irony that museums like the ROM were trying to move away from passive experiences toward interactive ones, but of course with Covid-19, you don’t want people touching things.
“The good news is the ROM is a very large facility. We have almost 270,000 square feet split across over 40 galleries, so we have an enormous amount of space in which people can maintain their distance. Our design team went through every square foot of the public galleries to determine which could reopen and the number of people that could safely be in the space. Certain galleries, like our Hands-On Biodiversity exhibit, we were unable to reopen, since it’s all about touching. Sadly, the Bat Cave will not reopen either. It’s just too narrow. We couldn’t figure out a way to give people enough distance.
“At the entrance, we’ve put up plexiglass shields to make it more comfortable for visitors and staff to interact. Outside each gallery there’s a number on the floor indicating the number of visitors allowed inside. The number varies by gallery, and we’re currently allowing a maximum of roughly 300 people per floor at one time. We’ve been hearing from other institutions that most people are pretty smart—if they look into a gallery and see more people than they feel comfortable with, they won’t go in.
“We don’t anticipate holding any in-person public programming into the fall, which will also affect our bottom line. Right now, we’re looking at the positive side: extending the museum experience to a wider at-home audience who may not otherwise have the proximity or means to attend our in-person programming. We dramatically ramped up our online presence and our education platform, ROM At Home. We’re linked to the Ministry of Education, so during the school year kids could access curriculum-material related to culture and nature. Some of the most successful online programs we’ve run are our curator talks, where we asked our curators to find something meaningful and related to their curatorial interest in their homes and do a short presentation on Zoom. Alexandra Palmer of the costume institute did a terrific talk on a pair of shoes in her closet.
“I’ve been working in the museum field for a long time, and never in ROM’s 100-year-plus history has the museum ever experienced something like before. To be closed to the public for four months is unprecedented and frankly, very sad. But we’re excited be to reopening. We’re ready to roll.”
Director and CEO, Aga Khan Museum
“As a relatively small institution, we were fortunate to be able to—I hate the word but I’ll use it—pivot very quickly. We closed down on March 14, and our first virtual program happened one day later. It was a live musical performance from a Pakistani qawwali ensemble, and about 6,000 people watched from around the world. It gave us a wonderful sense of optimism for how we could carry on throughout the entire period. From that point onward, we’ve had programming pretty much every single day. Going forward, we’re making sure that anything that happens at the museum in person is also going to live in the virtual domain.
“The government announced businesses could reopen on Wednesday, June 24, and we reopened our doors to the public that Saturday. We’d already had three months to prepare, and we were ready to open right away. Funding will be tight for this year, and we are hopeful that by reopening right away and providing the first month as pay-what-you-can, we can make up some of the revenue loss through donations. For us, the number-one priority was getting visitors back to the museum.
“While the museum was closed, our team was busy looking into how to run it safely. We spent a good two months working through all the measures we had to put into place because a lot of them require physical changes to the building. For example, all of our doors are now automatic. We installed plexiglass at our front desk. We removed all soft furnishings from the gallery and replaced them with hard plastic seating. We clean and disinfect high-touch areas such as door handles, elevator buttons and seating surfaces every hour or two as needed. We put signage in place to encourage physical distancing—not just in the public areas but also in the offices back of house as well.
“The biggest change to the museum we made is how we interact with the public. We now strongly encourage visitors to prebook their tickets online, which allows us to do contact tracing for everyone. If you don’t purchase a ticket online, you can buy one at the museum, but we will still take down all the necessary information required for contact tracing. We’ve imposed a 50-person-per-hour limit on the number of people coming through. We also created a two-hour window at the beginning of the day for seniors and vulnerable people, like they have at supermarkets.
“We’ve only had a few days of the public coming through, but we are pleased with the numbers so far. We’ve had about 200 people a day, which is a little bit lower than we’d expect this time of year. Normally we’d get around 300 to 350. I think people crave the arts and will want to return to what they’ve been missing. Safety is going to be at the forefront of everyone’s concerns, and that’s our job—to make sure the experience is safe and also enjoyable.”
Executive director, Textile Museum of Canada
“After modelling various reopening dates, we decided the earliest we could reopen is August 7. We needed six to eight weeks to get the space ready, which included deinstalling our last exhibition, installing our new exhibition, and altering the halls to adjust for distancing and improve visitor flow. We have eliminated some seating and adjusted placement of art works to provide more breathing space and hung works in a way that allows for social distancing when standing in front of them. For example, in our exhibition ‘Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios,’ we’ve repositioned the video that played in a narrow hallway and placed it in a space that allows visibility from multiple angles.
“Our museum is in the podium of a condo building, so the entrance is quite tiny. When we looked at social distancing, we found we could only fit two people in our lobby in addition to the reception desk. We decided to take out our old reception desk and install one half the size, with a plexiglass screen, to create more distance between people in that space. We’ve also completely reconfigured our retail environment, added a new information desk on the second floor and installed a staff-only bathroom.
“We’ve introduced timed ticket entry, selling tickets 24 hours in advance so we can space out arrivals. The maximum number of visitors per day is 42, letting in six people per hour—I think our audience will be slow to come back, and 42 daily visitors is optimistic. Once a visitor arrives at the museum, they’ll see signage outlining all the safety measures in place: contactless payment, masks, social distancing markers on the floor. We’ll still have ambassadors on the floor floating around to help answer questions, but they’ll be wearing face shields. For anyone who is deaf and requires lip reading, our staff will be wearing masks where the mouth is visible. It’s important we accommodate everyone.
“As stressful as Covid has been, it has provided us with an opportunity to implement many positive changes. An example is our upcoming exhibition of work from the New Brunswick artist Anna Torma. In pre-Covid times, we would have had a very Toronto-centric opening for the exhibition, but now that we have to hold it digitally, we can incorporate her community in New Brunswick, which is fabulous. A museum comes to life from the community that comes into it. Yes, we have objects on display but it’s really the interactions with visitors and the community that makes the space vibrant. Every time I’ve come into the space the past three months, it’s felt pretty ghostly.”
Director of visitor experience, Art Gallery of Ontario
“We welcomed our annual members and passholders back on July 2, and we’ll be reopening to the general public on July 23. The response to reopening has been very positive so far. One member told us that they had visited almost every single day since opening—they enjoyed having somewhere to go, to be cool, stretch their legs, recharge and be inspired by art.
“A visit to the AGO now begins with booking a ticket online. There are 10 time slots each day, every half-hour starting at 10:30, and each admits only 100 people at a time. We’ve closed our south entrance, so visitors will line up at the main entrance. A person will check their ticket outside, ensure they’re wearing a mask and ask them a list of screening questions before they’re allowed inside the gallery. If they haven’t purchased a ticket ahead of time, they must purchase one on their phone in order to be admitted.
“The screening questionnaire is one of many layers we’ve implemented to keep people safe. Staff have to answer the same questions as well. Outside the staff entrance, a protection services officer is screening employees and reminding them to pick up the PPE they need to conduct their work. Prior to reopening, I could sense a little trepidation among staff, but as soon as we opened the doors and let people in, there was a sense of relief.
“There’s a lot going on in the world, so we want to provide an opportunity for visitors to engage with the art without having to think too much about all of the precautions they need to take. We’ve added floor stickers to mark where people should stand if they’re in a line. For some of our tighter spaces, like our African Gallery, we’ve instituted one-way traffic to make the viewing experience as seamless as possible. In a small gallery, the maximum number of people allowed inside is five, but in a larger space we will allow up to 50 people at a time. We’re operating at less than 25 per cent of our total capacity. On a busy day last year, for example, we would have had upwards of 4,000 visitors inside the museum.
“This is a challenging moment for all museums, but we’re optimistic for a strong rebound in 2021 with marquee exhibitions of artists like Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso. To keep regular full-time and regular part time staff employed, with benefits, we had to get creative. In addition to the federal wage subsidy, we’ve also had three anonymous donors step up, and staff at all levels have accepted a 25 per cent pay reduction for the period of April 14 to September 15, 2020.
“We’re now open Thursday to Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. When we’re closed, our facilities team deep-clean all of the washrooms and high touch surfaces. We’ve extended our special exhibitions, so ‘Diane Arbus’ and ‘Illusions: The Art of Magic’ will be open until November 8. We’ve also added a lot of new online programming. Our head chef, Renée Bellefeuille, created recipes people can follow and cook at home. Stephan Jost, our director and CEO, has been hosting weekly Zoom conversations with other museum directors and creatives from across North America, and associate curator Audrey Hudson hosted a Zoom roundtable on how to talk about anti-Black racism.
“We will continue our online programming into the future, but we really want visitors to return to our physical space. Seeing an image or a video online is really not the same as standing in front of a painting and experiencing the brushstrokes and the vividness of the colours.”
Creative director and senior curator, Bata Shoe Museum
“We will be welcoming visitors back to the Bata Shoe Museum on July 15. We haven’t physically rearranged the museum, but we’ve added a lot of signage that encourages social distancing to make sure everyone is comfortable. Since we’re telling people to stand six feet apart and we’re a shoe museum, we’ve tried to be a little cheeky with the signage, using it as an opportunity to show off elements of our collection while encouraging people to abide by the rules.
“The museum is using this time as an opportunity to see if there’s work to be done in terms of general upkeep. We’ve upgraded our lighting and expanded our artifact storage, which provides a remarkable opportunity for the museum to continue to grow and acquire more artifacts. At the front desk, where you would normally buy your ticket, we’ve added a plexiglass shield.
“We’re limiting the number of tickets that are sold at any given time period. It’s not timed ticketing—we’re trying to be as welcoming and open as possible while making sure we never exceed the recommended capacity at any given time. We will be open five days a week, operating at 30 per cent of our capacity, which comes out to around 300 people a day. We don’t have any fears of reaching our capacity. We’re very hopeful Torontonians will come and see us, but obviously we won’t have the same tourist traffic.
“The museum’s 25th anniversary was on May 6, and we had so many great events planned for the year. We were going to open an exhibition on 18th-century footwear, launch a new book on the collection, and program 25 events for our anniversary year. Now the exhibition is going to open the middle of August and another exhibition that was going to open in September—’Exhibit A: Investigating Crime in Footwear’—has now been pushed in 2021.
“Throughout the closure I’ve been hosting two different Instagram Live shows. One is called ‘Ask A Curator,’ where I answer people’s questions about the museum, and the other is called ‘Museum Moments,’ where I talk to curators around the world about how the pandemic has affected their work. The next guest is Sharon Takeda, a senior curator at LACMA. She’s incredible.
“One of the things that makes the pandemic so difficult is the incredible uncertainty. While we’re all excited to reopen, we’re steeling ourselves to close down again if we need to. We are trying to prepare as best we can and hope that people are willing to come enjoy the museum, but we also know the tides may change.”