Museums: COVID-free or very high risk?

Today begins a series of articles on the post-Coronavirus cultural tourism situation, two months after the "reopening," as seen through the eye of a guide, the president of the Association of Licensed Tourist Guides. The first is devoted to rules in museums.

Examination of daily life in Italy at the moment points to such phenomena: on beaches, people crowd relaxed and unconcerned; nightlife spots are crowded; restaurants have decreased the number of place settings to observe spacing rules but are full of residents; airplanes can travel at full capacity; in buses and subways, people are forced to travel as needed with or without spacing, sometimes attached to each other.

There are some places, however, where the COVID-19 risk is still dangerously high and where people are forced to keep the rules as rigidly as they were two months ago: museums. If we looked objectively at photos taken in the halls of a museum at the most popular time and in a club at cocktail hour, we would think we were in two different countries, with different rules.

What makes museums and monuments so dangerous? The security officers appointed by the various institutions have drawn up very strict rules on how many people can enter each room, how many minutes and every how many hours each window must remain open, etc. Museum and monument directors are required to enforce these rules just as strictly. Museums are more at risk than outdoor places such as beaches. However, closed for closed, why does a museum have stricter rules than locales? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

At present, all places indoors and open to the public are subject to the same basic rules. Even in museums, visitors must wear face masks, keep the meter away, pass temperature control, etc. Indeed, museums with empty rooms, only with marble statues or canvases hanging on the walls, should be at very low risk, not least because, regardless of the coronavirus, visitors are never allowed to touch the works; in most cases there are cordons or alarm systems that prevent them from even getting too close. In contrast, in other places open to the public (stores, restaurants, buses) the objects that can be touched and accidentally unsanitized are countless.

Prato, Museo Civico di Palazzo Pretorio
Prato, Museo Civico di Palazzo Pretorio

In restaurants people eat, drink, talk and laugh without a mask. In airplanes you can be stuck to each other, only with a mask. On buses, without control (the only one protected is the driver), in theory not only someone infected with COVID-19 but also someone sick with the plague could board. Instead, inside museums, visitors are blocked and made to wait because in certain rooms they cannot stand more than one at a time, they are forced to follow a one-way path as in a game of the goose even when the rooms are empty, in some rooms one can stand in one, in others in five, in others in ten, and so on.

The reality is that in state and civic museums no one wants to take risks because the money goes to the state anyway. Airlines have been pushing to go back to full travel because otherwise they would go out of business, restaurants and venues do everything they can to seat as many people as possible in order to avoid closure, instead those who work in or for a museum have to protect their backs from criminal risks: the possibility of a COVID-19 infection claim on the job is more dangerous than the loss of tickets.

Directors and officials are great professionals who would like to carry out splendid projects, but blocked by bureaucracy and laws. So in museums and monuments, rules are slavishly applied; the concerns of those who are employed and the demands of those who represent them matter more than elsewhere. In the world of cultural heritage, we do not have the lobbies that persuaded to change the rules in airplanes and movie theaters. And visiting a museum is not as necessary as traveling on public transportation, where health regulations completely jump, but the state pretends not to see because transportation is collapsing.

I cannot afford to say whether it is more fair to enforce regulations strictly as in museums or half-heartedly as in nightlife venues or not enforce them at all as in buses. But I am sure that different norms and behaviors in the same cities do not make sense. A museum custodian who demands strict rules in the workplace can get infected on the packed bus while commuting, while eating a pizza, and while watching a movie.

Certainly Italian museums deserve the “COVID-free” stamp. Too bad they will also be people-free at this rate. Legislators would have a duty to change these distortions in our system while there is still time.

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