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Fewer Crowds, More Hand Sanitizer: Colorado Museums Adjust To New Normal As They Reopen

Courtesy DMNS
Nathan Sawaya's 'Park People' will be shown as part of the Denver Museum of Art and Science exhibit 'The Art of the Brick.'

Three months after going dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic, museums in Colorado are beginning to reopen their doors. But like everyone, they're adjusting to the new normal.

On the heels of outdoor cultural venues like the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Denver Zoo opening, indoor venues including History Colorado, the Museo de las Americas and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science announced their reopenings.

But a trip to the museum won't be the same: Now venues are following guidelines from health officials as well as Colorado Creative Industries. That includes social distancing measures, such as setting markers on the floors to designate six feet of space and requiring masks. Museums are also adding hand sanitizing stations and focusing on regular cleaning of frequent "touch points," like door handles.

"We're science nerds here, so you can imagine - we've been all over this from the very beginning," said Nancy Walsh, DMNS's vice president of experiences and partnerships.

On June 25, DMNS will open its highly anticipated "The Art of the Brick" exhibition, which features artist Nathan Saways' reimagined versions of famous masterpieces like Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and the "Venus de Milo" made entirely out of LEGOs.

Over the past three months, the museum has added Plexiglas barriers at ticket and information kiosks, increased air flow throughout the venue and added social distancing reminders everywhere. They've also instituted a new health and safety protocol for staff, including requiring face coverings and temperature checks.

At the Museum of Art Fort Collins, which opened this week, only 10 people will be allowed in at a time and visits will be restricted to 30 minutes. The museum also took a page from grocery stores, blocking out the first hour of the day for more at-risk patrons, including those ages 65 and older.

The museum's executive director Lisa Hatchadorian said she looked to both state and local health experts, as well as other cultural institutions and the American Alliance of Museums for guidance before deciding to reopen. They also did a trial run, allowing just four people in at a time to check out their Masks Exhibition and Benefit.

"It was kind of for both them and for us, to see how it was feeling," Hatchadorian said. "And from everything that I saw from the last two weeks, it was going great. Everyone was happy to be out, they were wearing their masks, they were happy to be socializing with friends and happy to be in the exhibition."

The annual exhibit, which features masks designed by local artists and community members, was moved to a virtual event when the museum closed, she said. But while that was helpful in keeping the museum's biggest fundraiser alive, it wasn't the real thing.

"People are very excited to see the masks (in person)," Hatchadorian said. 

"With the online component that we put in, because there are so many different types of materials whether it's a mosaic, or beads or felt - you can't see that kind of detail."

Credit Courtesy Museum of Art Fort Collins
Masks crafted by local artists featured as part of this year's Masks Exhibition and Benefit at the Museum of Art Fort Collins. Clockwise, starting from top left: Tyra Brown, 'Opportunity Behind Doubt'; Bob Coonts, 'Help! There is a wolf at my door'; Douglas Case, 'Thor Rockmaninoff, Warrior and Composer of Ancient Rock Music'; and Sarah Bennett, 'Chihuly Eyes'.

At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 500 people will be allowed in per hour, also for timed visits. But Walsh says while 500 people sounds like a lot right now, it won't feel like it.

"There's going to be a ton of space; social distancing will not be a problem, at all," she said.  "It's going to feel vast, and I hope people will really treasure the experience with their families of being in the museum in a way that they may never have been in it before. Where they can really explore and feel like, 'It's mine. I'm having a really special experience.'"

Some of the more interactive exhibitions like Space Odyssey and the early childhood Discovery Zone are both temporarily closed for renovation, Walsh said. But there will be other "hands-on" components that will stay out along with signage telling people to interact at their discretion.

Many museums are also continuing the virtual programming that they've been doing during the shutdown. Hatchadorian says the changes they've had to make have helped them work on being more nimble to the needs of audiences.

"That will be something I think that will stick around for all of us, how we interact with the public in different ways and how flexible we can be - until this virus has a vaccine," she said. "Because I think there may be times where we may have to close down again. So it's not going to be some small, incremental upward trajectory towards normalcy again. I think it's going to kind of bounce up and down, and we have to be adaptable to that."

Credit Courtesy DMNS
Nathan Sawaya's take on Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' will be shown as part of the Denver Museum of Art and Science exhibit 'The Art of the Brick.'

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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