No headsets, one-way systems: Reopening Ireland’s museums

Galleries and museums set to open alongside hairdressers in Government’s plans

I like to see art on my own. It’s a solitary pleasure, just me and the painting or the object. I find it difficult to put any thoughts into words until much later, although I do like a coffee after. So social distancing, once our galleries and museums reopen, won’t be an emotional problem for many visitors. But for those in charge of Ireland’s museums and galleries, the practical challenges are huge and the planning has already begun.

Ireland’s galleries and museums have done an excellent job of responding to Covid with online content but, just as Zoom is no substitute for seeing a loved one for real, there’s nothing like being up close and personal with an art work. You may argue that seeing a loved one in the flesh generally involves touch, and you’re not allowed to cuddle an art work, so what are the problems for our museums to solve?

At the Irish Museums Association (IMA), Gina O'Kelly emails me a map created by the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO), which details reopening dates and plans across Europe. O'Kelly has been in touch with colleagues in the network since mid-April.

“Many are a little ahead of us in terms of opening dates,” she says, and the IMA website has shared details of the reopening plans and guidelines being adopted by different countries ( “It is worth noting a distinction is being made between the reopening of the museum in terms of services such as research, learning, conservation… and the reopening to the public of exhibition spaces.”


The problems are fourfold: safety of staff, safety of visitors, management of experience, and finally – where is the money going to come from? In this, all museums aren’t created equal. Ireland’s publicly funded arts spaces don’t rely on admission charges, and what earned income they do have comes from cafe and bookshop revenues, as well as sponsorships, donations and corporate hires. All will be vastly reduced.

But first to safety: at the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, director Barbara Dawson says the gallery has seen increases of up to 300 per cent across its various social media channels, "but while there's obviously a huge online appetite, people will love to go back and see the real thing," she says of a collection that includes glorious Harry Clarke stained glass, Impressionist masterpieces, and the Francis Bacon Studio.

Dawson says her team are taking professional advice to establish the capacity of the galleries. “We’re looking at ticketing, routes through the gallery, maybe a one-way system.”

I wonder about this. I’ve never seen an exhibition where I haven’t wanted to double back and look at something again. “If you establish the optimum number that’s safe, there could be sufficient room to do that. We want to make the experience as enriching as possible.”

Irish museum directors are looking to Germany, where their colleagues were officially allowed to open from late April in some states. The Barberini in Berlin reopened with a Monet exhibition. Not only do you book in advance to see the show, but also for a time slot to see the blockbuster works: his haystacks and waterlilies. Masks are mandatory.

“Ticketing will be new, but not paid for,” says Dawson of her own plans. I ask her about the German approach of also ticketing for individual works. “It’s interesting,” she says, “I would prefer to give visitors an hour, and explain that they have that time to make a tour of all the works.”

Germany is learning from experiences in Singapore and Hong Kong, gathered in a report by CiMAM, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art. The guidelines are obvious enough: timed ticketing; online booking; one-way systems; limited numbers; no tours; no headsets; enforcing social distancing with floor markers; hand sanitisers; and masks for staff and visitors.

Some are less likely to be taken up here: temperature screening of all visitors; visitor registration and contact tracing; obtaining travel and health declarations from visitors.

“What about the loos?” I ask, and Dawson laughs. It has, apparently, been a topic of inter-directorial conversation. “We already have an excellent clean-down routine,” she says, adding that here it’s a question of amplifying that, and creating an appropriate queuing system. “The attendant staff will have the correct PPE. Theoretically gallery attendants shouldn’t be more than 2 metres away from people anyway. We need to ensure a nice freeflow. You don’t want people shuffling around, like in the big exhibitions.”

Shuffling around was never fun, and the huge international blockbusters may well be a thing of the past – and that’s no loss. The hot scrum to tick off a quick blast of a Leonardo, or playing tour-group roulette to catch a quiet moment in front of The Birth of Venus was never my idea of art heaven. With the Museum of Modern Art in New York announcing a budget reduction of $45 million, it’s fair to say that the international landscape will be very different.

Social spaces

In some ways the readjustments may be welcome. The huge wave of museum expansion that followed the building of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 prioritised spectacle and sensation over consideration and contemplation. Commercial space frequently overshadowed the galleries, with routes designed to herd you through the gift shops. All that will surely need to change.

And yet, despite my solitary viewing habits, museums are also social spaces, not least for the tourists who have, up until now, flocked to Dublin as a Unesco City of Literature. MoLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland, opened last September, with projected audience numbers of 85,000 for its first year.

“Even though we’re primarily a domestic cultural institution, 65 per cent of our visitors would have come from overseas,” says MoLI director Simon O’Connor. They would all have paid entrance fees, money that enabled MoLI to run free access and education programmes, as well as generally keep things going.

“Not to be catastrophic, but to plan for the worst, we’re potentially looking at no international visitors for the next 18 months,” says O’Connor. This has led his team’s thinking of changes that may have overdue in the sector in any case: “how do we make this even more valuable to a domestic audience?” he asks, and his answer includes “opening later in the morning, staying open later in the evening. People won’t have bars and restaurants to go to as much as they did.” A museum as an alternative to going to the pub? It’s a shame it took a pandemic to get us there.

“We closed the same time that everyone else did,” O’Connor recalls. “We fully expected it at some point. But I was in Carrick-on-Shannon with Pat McCabe, in his sitting room, when the announcement came through.” Now O’Connor and his team are tackling the operational challenges of reopening, following both emerging Government guidelines, as well as watching what other countries are doing.

“There are two audiences, the public and our staff. So we’re looking at how to keep everyone safe, which is essentially a massive upgrade to what would typically be our health and safety procedures.”

Technical challenges are one thing, O’Connor says, and these include removing touch screens, and replacing head sets with surround sound, or “audio umbrellas”, and rethinking exhibitions that involve handling objects. “The unknowns are the emotional and psychological aspects,” he continues. “How will our public feel? What will they want to do? Germany had queues down the street when they reopened, so people are hungry for it, but they have to feel safe.”

The trick, as O’Connor sees it, is to make people feel safe, but not so much that they forget to be careful. “It’s like so many things, it begins by being mind-bogglingly complex, but then you break it down and it’s quite simple. Timed entry – like the supermarkets, segmenting audiences, finding routes through. Part of our goal,” he says, “is to reopen the place in such a way that people think they have the place to themselves, and that they’re still exploring.”

In this, he is helped by the layout of MoLI’s building. Pity other spaces with tight bottlenecks, or the challenge of Imma’s long corridors flanked by smaller rooms and smaller-still connecting spaces. But, following conversations with O’Connor and Dawson, it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing that can’t be solved. You could argue that our museums and galleries could have been scheduled to open earlier. After all, if you can open a garden centre, you can open a gallery, where people aren’t generally known to barge and grab for things.

Maybe it’s felt that art isn’t vital, and yet it is: to mental health and wellbeing, in so many ways, that lie beyond the obvious and the measurable. Our galleries and museums hold the wealth of our histories and struggles, not only to survive, but to thrive and make sense of the world, and to dream of possible futures. Being in the presence of the works they contain grounds you in a connection with time, and one another, in the way a digital representation simply doesn’t achieve.

To support this, funding, will be key, and O’Kelly notes that while museums in receipt of direct support from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in 2020 “have been allowed 50 per cent of advance funding drawdown, they have not had their annual funding confirmed [and] there appears to be no additional resourcing being allocated to these or the wider sector”.

Under the current plan, Ireland’s museums and galleries can open from July 10th. The Hugh Lane will open with Worlds Without End, an exhibition of the work of Irish and international artists, that was to have launched in April. Ironically it looks at borders, and restriction of movement of people across the globe.