Museums reopening in NYC, September 2020

For almost six months of 2020, New York City’s magnificent museums sat empty. After months of strict lockdown, and a very cautious and careful tiered reopening, the Covid-19 numbers in NYC came down and remained down to the point where museums were allowed to reopen in September. Capacity is limited, masks are required, and social distancing is enforced. This month, thirsty for the experience of once again being inside these magnificent buildings, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. I ended up having experiences unlike any I have had before, and ended up figuratively discovering a kind of silver lining to all the clouds we have dealt with this year. I am aware that not everyone feels safe visiting museums, and everyone has their own calculus of risk when deciding what to do and what not to do. For anyone who is considering going to a museum in the next few months, however, I hope that this account will help you decide whether it is safe enough, and if it is worth it.

First, the Metropolitan Museum of Art – a museum so vast and all-encompassing that it can be overwhelming, especially when there are crowds. You have to make a timed reservation online in advance (here), your temperature is checked upon entrance, masks are required, hand sanitizer is easy to find, and there are social distancing signs everywhere. I didn’t ride in an elevator, but when I passed them there were long lines, in part because people were keeping six feet of distance even while waiting, but also because only two people were allowed in the elevator at the same time.

I didn’t have any trouble keeping physical distance, and in fact it was a little shocking (but wonderful) to be able to look at Van Gogh’s famous Irises without having to peer around a huge group of people. They have an ongoing project to reopen skylights in the galleries housing 17th and 18th Century European Painting, so I was unable to see my personal favorite Met painting (El Greco’s View of Toledo) but made do with another favorite shown above, a Renoir with three young girls that often reminds me of my own daughters when they were younger.

My next visit was to the American Museum of Natural History. Without realizing it, I went on the first day that it was open to the public (after a members’ preview) and they were giving out souvenir casts of a t-rex tooth as a welcome gift. This was surprisingly thrilling! Reservations were required in advance (here), masks required, temperature was checked as you entered, hand sanitizer was abundant, and I found the signage more explicit and clear here than in any other museum. This makes sense, as their demographic includes many younger visitors. Even the restrooms blocked off every other stall and every other sink to encourage distance – although when I was in there, I was alone so that wasn’t an issue.

The museum was decidedly empty. In the popular dinosaur hall, all traffic was clearly marked as one way, the arm bone of the apatosaurus that usually you can touch was covered, and touchscreens were no longer active as such. All the staff seemed very welcoming – I was thanked for coming repeatedly while here.

Next was MoMA, a personal favorite and only a few blocks from my home. Reservations were required in advance (here), as were masks and social distancing. Temperature was checked on arrival. Many galleries were one way, which makes navigating from the old wing to the new wing more challenging than usual. However, any inconvenience this caused was more than offset by the lack of crowds. I have never had a more enjoyable experience at MoMA. I felt at times as if I had the museum to myself, and it was magical.

Seriously. I rarely take selfies, but I did in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Monet’s Water Lilies, because I was alone in the room with them instead of peering over a crowd. It was surreal.

My final museum of this month’s adventures was the Whitney. Again, reservations were required in advance (here), mask-wearing required, there were distancing reminders, and I saw staff members cleaning the stair railings. I saw someone with a thermometer to take temperatures upon entry, but I was not asked to stop for that, and as I left I saw people going in without being checked.

Crowds were very low, although not as empty as MoMA. I didn’t take an elevator, but they seemed to be taking four people at a time. Stairwells were only up or down and were clearly marked.

Overall, I felt safe visiting all four museums, and savored the experiences very much after not being able to for so long. In some ways, these were perhaps the most enjoyable times I have been to museums, because of the low crowds. This reminds me of walking the High Line Park now, which is often marred by enormous crowds but now requires timed reservations (easy to get online, and walk up is also possible if they are under the new limited capacity). I have gone three times since it reopened, and absolutely love the feeling of having the park to myself, and even being able to get one of the coveted loungers and relax – usually almost impossible. However, there is also a sadness in the same lack of crowds, and emptiness. We know that this is not how NYC should be. For all that we complain about the bustle and the throngs of tourists, they are also part of our DNA as a city and we thrive on it. So while I will continue to enjoy the singular solitude of communing alone in a gallery with Van Gogh, I also look forward to the time when I look back on this unusual time (what would we call it? the partially reopened era?) with fondness because our city has come roaring back to life. It always has before, and it will again.

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