Being in a closed art gallery could make anyone paranoid during a pandemic. Visitors who brave the risk of leaving their homes may still doubt whether they are in a crowded space, people standing too close to them, or be skeptical of air circulation in museums. The spectrum of control exercised by people who frequent an indoor art museum varies greatly from the experience of visiting an outdoor botanical garden. How to give visitors more space to enjoy the works in complete safety? The field of exhibit design is expanding to meet these evolving challenges that will likely persist well beyond a vaccine solution against COVID-19.
Exhibits take years to prepare. While some exhibitions dealing with permanent collectibles have more flexibility, other exhibitions with works on loan from private collectors or other artistic institutions are more complicated. They require extensive agreements, insurance, and usually a courier to get them back and forth between spaces. When COVID restrictions started hitting museums last spring, it turned the exhibition programs of most museums upside down. Not only have they had to rethink, postpone or cancel entire exhibitions, but they have also had to rethink their current galleries to allow for greater social distancing.
When many museums only allow 25% capacity, how visitors interact with the space becomes increasingly important. Avoiding bottlenecks and consolidations is a major concern. What does this mean for interpretation and museum experience? Visitors are likely to see fewer labels. The text on the wall can bring groups of people together to read it. It will take more work from guests to educate themselves with brochures or visit the website for more background on the artwork before their visit. Videos and other materials that enhance the visitor experience will become simpler, shorter, or only available online.
Exhibition design will likely continue to evolve into a “less is more” approach. More artwork will be removed from checklists to leave extra space between objects and viewers. The galleries will therefore appear larger and more open. Based on neuroscience research from Peabody Essex Museum of Art, we know that visitors tend to spend much more time viewing individual works of art earlier in the exhibits than at the end. Less work and more space will allow visitors to better pace themselves and enjoy the rooms without being overwhelmed or crowded.
A debated point in the design of an exhibition is whether there should be one way to experience an art exhibition if there is to be multiple routes. Most museums’ post-pandemic protocols have a “one-way, one-way” system to guide human trafficking. Some believe that this is a less efficient way to deal with crowds and that the more people in and out of a space, the better it is for visitors. However, studies from the Peabody Essex Museum have also found that when museum visitors see an exit sign, they tend to spend less time interested in art and have a sense of urgency to leave.
COVID-19 will undoubtedly affect the way museums are built and renovated for decades to come. It will be highly preferable to have flexible gallery spaces where walls can be removed or auditoriums with seating that can be reconfigured. Bringing the outdoors into artistic institutions, a push that began long before the pandemic, will become a priority. Outdoor cafes and illuminated glass corridors will gradually become the new standard for museums around the world. Gift shops might even become mini-museums themselves, where touching is a thing of the past, and where you navigate to shop.
Condensing an exhibition’s message with fewer works of art, text, and interpretive elements can allow visitors a safe museum experience, but it offers a more diluted way of interacting with the art. Less accessible information and little or no tactile elements also make visits less rich and less memorable. While it is important to consider how to create the adaptable viewing experience possible, it is equally important to ensure that we don’t lose valuable content and to continue to find new ways of connecting people and the world. ‘art.