Apocalypse: Now What? When will museums be safe?

A reader wants to know why people can't go to their favorite museum — and when they can.

Seattle Art Museum in downtown Seattle

Seattle Art Museum in downtown Seattle on June 10, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.


Question: Could you shed any light on why museums have to be closed now? They seem to me to be much like grocery stores in that you can create a path through them and keep a safe distance between people, and the great majority of exhibits are not tactile. I miss SAM and SAAM!

Dear reader, I miss SAM and SAAM, too. The chance to leave all our modern troubles behind to spend an afternoon basking in the genius of the Great Masters — Kinkade, Davis, Hummel — sounds life-affirming to me. Alas, the simplest answer is that those museums can’t open until King County enters Phase 3, and we remain frozen in the slightly-normal-but-mostly-not Phase 2

A museum and a grocery store might seem similar at first glance. But unless you’re mad-dashing through the Post-War Abstract Expressionists exhibit in a desperate bid to get back outdoors as you would the produce section at Fred Meyer, I’d argue that the experience and purpose are quite different. 

Grocery stores remain essential because they are major repositories for the food that keeps our bodies alive. “But art keeps our souls alive!” you may say. I agree — I have an EARTH sticker on my Subaru, too — but you can starve your soul longer than your body. Just ask anybody living through this gosh-darned pandemic. 

Unlike a grocery store, the museum experience requires some freedom to linger, spending time absorbing and engaging with its riches. That means groups of people in enclosed spaces, breathing a worrying amount of particulate matter into the air to be shared with those around them for an extended period of time. This activity by its very nature falls on the riskier end of the spectrum. 

Social distancing, masks, limiting capacity and designated pathways might mitigate some of this; in fact, museums are almost definitely going to need to incorporate some of these techniques upon reopening. Advanced air filtration systems could help, too — but that’s probably too expensive for most cash-strapped establishments. As for museums with tactile exhibits, fears about coronavirus transmission from fomites (droplets left on surfaces) has lessened some, and frequent disinfection with plenty of hand-sanitizing stations can minimize that risk.

But museums can’t reopen until COVID-19 cases subside in the population as a whole. The probability of sharing space with a fellow fan of postmodern piscine musical installation art who just happens to also be an asymptomatic or presymptomatic coronavirus carrier needs to lessen. Sadly, King County is currently going in the wrong direction on this, hence the Phase 2 pause. 

Because of that, our beautiful museums are left to gather dust and suffer. And they are suffering mightily: Nationally, over half report not having enough funds to last six months of closure. In response, many have stepped up to offer extensive exhibits and educational resources online, with specific programming designed to help us all get through this crisis. Take a spin at SAM, NAAM, SAAM, PSC, MoPOP, MOHAI and ones without weird acronyms, like the Frye, Burke, Nordic or Wing Luke museums. You can still support them financially, too.

It might seem like thin gruel to experience art on a screen instead of in person, but I can guarantee it will keep your soul alive — even if I couldn’t find my favorite Cecilia Giménez in any of them. Must’ve been an oversight.

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