Smithsonian museums and others are reopening; I visited one to find out what it’s like

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

A Hand Sanitizing station at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Center in northern Virginia (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses)

As coronavirus cases reached relative lows across the country around mid-June, various museums began announcing their reopenings. While many of these reopenings were canceled due to a new high in coronavirus cases, especially throughout the southern U.S., cases remained relatively stable in and around D.C., allowing some museums to move ahead with their reopenings.

Private museums, which depend mainly on ticket revenues to survive, were the first to reopen, often doing so as soon as legally possible. The private International Spy Museum reopened on June 22, the same day D.C’s second phase of reopening, allowing museums to open, went into effect. Free museums, like those belonging to the Smithsonian Institution, which receives 62% of its funding from the federal government, were able to take a more cautious approach. The institution reopened only one of its museums, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s large Udvar-Hazy Center, as well as Smithsonian’s National Zoo, on July 24, as part of a pilot program. A number of new health and safety protocols were in effect.

The first protocol patrons will encounter is a time slot reservation system in advance of entering the museum. For the Udvar-Hazy museum, time-slots are reserved in 30 minute intervals, capped at 130 attendees per interval. While this may seem like a lot, because of the museum’s size, it is kept relatively empty. I took a recent visit to the museum on a day when time slots were booked up, which confirmed that physical distancing was easy, with wide walkways and cooperative people allowing the museum to feel safe.

Smithsonian was also very active in discouraging sick people from going to their museums. On the day of your visit, they send visitors an email (a copy of the one they sent me is here) listing a variety of circumstances in which one should not visit the museum, including the symptoms of Covid-19 and contact with a sick person. Once at the museum, a screen greets you by playing this video, which reiterates that no one should visit the museum if they are or may be sick.

Udvar-hazy Museum on its reopening day, with relatively few people (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Once at the museum, staff members hold the door open for visitors, minimizing contact. Visitors still need to get their bag checked, though coronavirus transmission risk is reduced by plastic barriers at bag-checking stations. There are signs indicating the special procedures in place for bag-checking.

Bag checking station with plastic barrier(Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

A few of the signs and stickers present around the Udvar-Hazy Museum (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Other measures, like mandatory mask-wearing were also in place, and were being widely followed. During my visit, I only saw one person, a toddler, not wearing a mask (masks are not required for those 6 and under). Throughout the museum, there were numerous reminders to wear a mask and maintain social distancing, with signs and stickers at virtually every corner.

There are hand-sanitizing stations spread throughout the museum, especially near high-contact areas like railings, doors, and elevators. None of these hand-sanitizing stations were empty on the day I visited.

One-way walking systems are also in place at the museum, on pathways where physical distancing could not usually be maintained. One-way pathways drastically reduce the amount of times where people pass by each other, reducing coronavirus transmission risk. On wider pathways, where walking in both directions was permitted, there were arrows signaling where people should walk to maintain physical distancing.

One way paths (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

Two way paths with arrows (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

The museum closed attractions and services where it was deemed impossible to sufficiently reduce coronavirus transmission risk. These include the museum’s observation tower, which can only be accessed by an elevator, and the museum’s restaurant, where visitors would have had to remove their masks indoors. To continue providing visitors with food options, the museum has invited food trucks to park outside the museum. This solution allows people to get food and eat outdoors, where coronavirus risk is minimized, while supporting the struggling food truck industry.

A sign at the museum restaurant’s entrance, pointing visitors towards food trucks outside (Lucas Ribeiro for Lenses News)

It appears that Smithsonian has done everything in its control to reduce coronavirus transmission risk. The museum’s visitors also cooperated with their policies. Similar policies have also been enacted in other museums that have reopened around the U.S. For those who do not yet feel comfortable with visiting a physical museum, many museums (including some of those that have re-opened physically) are also offering virtual tours. On the coronavirus danger spectrum, visiting a museum in person would be positioned between a walk in the park and a visit to a restaurant. That being said, despite any museum’s efforts, there is always some risk. Whether that risk is acceptable is still a topic of debate.

Through Teen Lenses: Are museums doing the right thing by reopening physically?

“I think that museums should remain closed to the public…The risk of coronavirus is high in the museums, since they are indoor spaces, and they may not have the money to replace the ventilation systems so that it spreads the coronavirus less. I know that the Eiffel Tower is starting to do virtual tours, so I think that museums should do the same.” Anonymous, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School, Alexandria, Virginia
“Going to the museum doesn’t involve as much hands on activity [as compared to other activities like shopping] (no touching clothes to try on, picking up produce, etc), so it’s safer that way… These museums need money to stay open…and they’re not going to get that…without opening. Though they should also try to put in some paid online service like tours or something. The capacity should be a lot lower and ppl should be mandated to wear masks but yeah, [museums are doing the right thing by reopening]” Sheoli Lele, 16, Rising Junior at Langley High School, Mclean, Virginia
“I do think they are doing the right thing by reopening them, because they should be open to the public as knowledge is a fundamental part of what America should be. The risk is less than going to a restaurant if you put in proper counter measures like no touching of any surface with hands and constant washing” Anonymous, 14, Rising Sophomore at James Madison High School, Vienna, Virginia