Museums are generally known for their subdued environments, the revered silence around pieces of art and the contemplative quiet when looking at an age-old artifact. Maybe only the sounds of a video clip or background music would reverberate in the room. But on a typical day at the museum, there would be multiple groups, maybe even a visiting class or two, excited tourists and locals alike clamoring to see the latest exhibition.
But last spring, museums went truly silent in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Many have since slowly reopened — some have closed and opened again in response to local ordinances — but with noticeably thinner crowds.
In February, Denver allowed museums to welcome back visitors to 50 percent of their capacity from previous guidelines issued late last year of 25 percent. Many other museums around Colorado have also opened to guests with lower capacity than during normal times.
Still, with so much uncertainty around the ongoing pandemic, guests were cautious.
Anxiety over visiting museums soothed by safety protocols
Taj Wandling-Motallebi found it difficult to convince a friend to come with her to see the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit on Mexican Modernism.
“It's funny, I called one of my friends asking if she wanted to go,” Wandling-Motallebi said. “And she was like, ‘Absolutely not. That's a super spreader event.’”
Before going to check out the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at DAM, Julie Long also felt nervous.
“I was a little apprehensive to go to places that are large and with more crowds,” she said.
Megan Berry, who also took her daughters to DAM, echoed the sentiment.
“We're pretty strict with the quarantine protocols,” Berry said. “So it was sort of weird to be in a space again.”
However, after the initial jitters, these visitors once again found comfort in the world of art — with a few social distancing protocols and hand sanitizer stations tossed in for good measure.
Wandling-Motallebi ended up bringing her partner for her trip to DAM and made a date out of it.
“We went and grabbed some takeaway breakfast beforehand,” she said. “It was just exciting to be able to go somewhere. It was just that taste of normal life.”
Long picked a time she thought would be less crowded and brought along a friend.
“I dressed up for the occasion,” she said. “I always like to try to dress nice when I go out, but it was nice to be in an environment that felt more normal even though it's still distanced and everyone wears masks.”
Berry also made her family’s visit to DAM a memorable one and found one bright spot in the new normal protocols of visiting a museum.
“Both my kids commented that it smelled like we were at the swimming pool because everything was so clean and sanitized,” she said. “It was also interesting because it was my 4-year-old's first time going to an art museum. I had taken her sister to see the Degas exhibit a few years ago as her first experience. It was much more crowded and you sort of had to wait your turn to be able to see some of the paintings. There were definitely people all around, and I had to keep a close eye on my daughter to make sure she didn't wander off too far. This one just felt in some ways nicer, just because it was very relaxed and not crowded.”
For families, valuable time together out of the house
Like Berry, Nancy Clarissa Updike took her family, which included her 2-year-old son and her mother and partner, to DAM and the Museum of Nature and Science.
“It was soul food. It felt like a big trip. We went to the museum for an hour, an hour and a half, and it felt like we had been to Europe,” she said.
The trip to see the Mexican Modernism exhibit was especially meaningful to the family, as Updike’s grandmother was living in Mexico City at the same time as Kahlo and Rivera, had met them and even bought some of their artworks.
“It was a worthy risk for us and it honestly didn't feel any more risky than going to the grocery store where somebody is wearing their mask inappropriately,” she said. “The museum seems to be really clear about how to wear your mask and when you could come in, how long you could stay.”
On her trip to the Museum of Nature and Science, Updike said she felt safe in the building’s large atrium. She also picked a time that was less crowded and found it easy to be among other families but at a safe distance in and out of exhibits.
“The first time we went and there was live piano music, you could tell that people just hadn't been around other people in art and music and were yearning for it because people just stopped to listen to the piano music,” she said.
Updike has since returned to the museum for their family-friendly and COVID-safe programs.
“They set up little coloring stations on carpeted mats, eight feet away from each other. So he got to color and he could see other kids, he rode the escalator up and down many times, and they have buttons in the diorama exhibits that little kids can press and they'll make noises for the different animals,” she said. “Kids are so joyful. My son is only two and he'll wear a mask sometimes just because he sees adults wear them. But even though kids have adapted, it's nice to just see them being kids in a communal space to have some freedom and play.”
An antidote to loneliness — and a reason to put on pants
For Tatiana Rivera, going to museums became a way to stave off loneliness.
“My family's in California, I'm here in Denver and I thought, well, this is a great way to get out and have a reason to put some normal clothes on,” she said. “The whole process of showering and putting on pants with a zipper and a button, dusting off those cute sneakers that I would like to wear out, and throwing on a cute mask as well — it just became a fun time for myself. Almost like taking myself on these solo dates to go to museums.”
Rivera took herself out on these solo dates to a new museum each weekend in January, which took her to DAM, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the “Carne y Arena” exhibit in Aurora and the Museo de las Americas.
Pandemic Art: New Shows At MCA Denver Reflect On A Year Of Struggle
Like Berry, Rivera also enjoyed the museum’s less-crowded experience.
“It was great to have the entire museum to myself to really explore and take my time with each of the pieces without having to worry about others around me or thinking, ‘Oh, I should move on to the next one so I can let the person behind me who's waiting to also view this piece,’” she said.
As officials continue to ease restrictions as COVID case numbers decrease and vaccination rollout progresses, the days of nearly empty museums may be numbered, but for Rivera, the chance to get out of the house has eased the loneliness many feel during the pandemic.
“It feels slightly normal again. I think there's something really fun about dressing up for yourself to take care of yourself and enjoy that,” Rivera said. “It’s a great way to get out and lift the spirits.”