If you happen to be in Paris, it’s a great time to visit the Louvre and the “Mona Lisa.” With museum visitor numbers down – way down below the summer season norm of 30,000-50,000 per day – you can see the world’s most famous painting without standing in a crush.
Starting Thursday, July 16, closer to home, you might snag some alone time with Rembrandt’s “Lucretia” or Raffaelo Monti’s “Veiled Lady” as the Minneapolis Institute of Art opens its doors to the public for the first time since March 13.
“I think it might be a pleasant surprise for many people to experience the museum in a way they haven’t yet, which is almost by themselves,” said Michael Lapthorn, Mia’s exhibition designer. “They may have an entire gallery to themselves. That’ll be a very new experience for people who might go to the museum only on weekends, when it is particularly crowded.
“I think that will be a profound experience for some. I know there are others who are energized by the crowds, who feel that one of the things that make Mia so great is the energy a lot of visitors create. We all want that to return as soon as possible. But for now, it will be a little more contemplative way of looking at the work.”
Lapthorn is among Mia staff charged with preparing the museum to receive visitors safely during a pandemic. We spoke with him Monday as part of our behind-the-scenes look at reopening one of the nation’s great museums. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: You’re an exhibition designer. What is your role in preparing to reopen?
Michael Lapthorn: I have put on another hat, because we’ve had to delay or cancel a number of summer and fall shows. I’ve turned my layout skills to the museum entry and exit points.
When I do an exhibition layout, I’m very concerned about which way people go. Is there enough room for them to look at this art while other people are around them? Those skills come in handy when you look at creating an entry method and exit routes through the museum. It’s a different space, but the same techniques.
I was able to theorize and bring to reality a method of getting people into the museum, deeply into the core of the museum, letting them go up into the museum, and when they’re at the top, they filter down and they’re directed to a single exit point.
MP: How did you come up with your plan?
ML: We have the advantage of having seen other spaces that had to do their planning on a much quicker timeframe. Grocery stores and retail had to come up with plans very quickly. They learned very quickly what worked and what didn’t.
There’s a common design that is working quite well. You tell your customer or visitor what you want them to do up front, at the beginning, with a lot of information and directions. You get them into the space and then pull back, ease up, and let them do their thing, whether it’s shopping for sugar and flour or buying new swimsuits. Let them do what they came to do. Then, at the other end, upon exiting, you bring back the signage. “Please go this way. Stay to your right.”
That’s a model we’ve been following. It’s a good one, it’s a sound one, it’s been practiced for months now. Our visitors have learned to look for these cues as they shop for groceries or whatever. We’re not going to present them with anything they haven’t seen before. We will open the museum to let people wander and look at art, as they normally would.
MP: Even though Mia is huge, are you limited to the maximum of 250 people at a time?
ML: We feel a responsibility to play by the book as it’s been written. We will wait for the governor to move the state into the next phase and we can recalculate our capacities. For now, 250 is the number we were dealt, and it’s the number we have to play. We’ll do our best to make it an enjoyable experience for those people who can come in.
MP: Has the need for visitor safety affected how galleries are designed?
ML: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I can’t imagine re-hanging a gallery to specifically accommodate social distancing. You don’t see grocery stories ripping out every other aisle or spreading out groceries by one group of products, space, another group. You don’t see that kind of redesign happening because this is a temporary situation. It would be a highly diminished experience to come to a museum where everything was spaced apart like that. That’s not what people want. People want to come to the museum to see it as it was.
A lot depends on personal responsibility. We will state many times throughout the visitor’s stay to please respect social distancing and masks are required. We’ll have markers on the floor where appropriate and necessary. We’re asking our visitors to respect those rules.
Above all, we have to be responsive. We’ll have security on the floor and VE [visitor experience] staff in the building to identify any potential hot spots. We’re going to learn a tremendous amount during a two-week soft opening, where we get to test drive all of this. We’re not just jumping in the deep end. We’re taking a very measured and calculated approach. We will be collecting data the whole time.
Another thing we’ve talked about at length, and I’ve thought about a great deal, is unlike a grocery store, where you can count on how much space you’ve got and you intuitively know how things are laid out, the museum is a random assortment of different-sized rooms connected by randomly-sized hallways, some very narrow. We’ve identified those where we need to do a one-way flow, or where a visitor might actually bump into another visitor because it’s a blind corner. We’ve marked them as such. It’s up to staff and visitors to report and say, “Look at this gallery. When you walk out, you can’t see what’s coming at you.”
There are bound to be some areas where we, as museum professionals who work in the building all the time, don’t see them as a new visitor would. We’re on call and at the ready to address those issues when they arrive.
MP: I keep thinking about the Japanese Teahouse. There’s a narrow passage in front of it and a case full of pots on the other side of the passage.
ML: It’s a tight space. We’ll have directional arrows. A lot has to do with people looking at arrows.
I was at a discount shoe warehouse yesterday, buying some shoes, and they had more arrows on the floor than shoes on the racks. It was a little weird. I don’t believe that’s what people want, and I don’t believe people will follow that, especially in an art museum, where they want to go see what they want to see.
You can’t put people on a train and drag them through the museum without stopping. People are craving that kind of freedom, and I think we can give it to them safely, especially with the capacity we’re holding to. I do want to clarify that once you get on the second or third floor, you can go wherever you want, aside from a few spaces that will be marked as one way only.
MP: What part of your planning has been especially challenging?
ML: One of the big challenges has been the vertical circulation. We only have two elevators we can use. We’ve dedicated one to make up trips only, and we’ve dedicated the other to make down trips only. We will have to test this to see if it actually works. We are guaranteed to have many people who want to use the elevator. The elevators are very small and the social distancing is challenging. Vertical circulation might be our biggest test.
MP: Where have you turned for advice and information?
ML: We’ve been working with the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota. They’ve been fantastic. They’ve been reviewing our plans and looking at our staff preparedness. We’ve been talking with them about circulation plans and different options. It’s great to have someone from outside the museum who has a completely different set of skills that can be applied to what we’re doing.
One of the first documents to come out at the beginning of this [pandemic] was from the Wynn Casinos in Las Vegas. They came out almost immediately with the most comprehensive facility preparedness plan. There’s something about casinos that’s very applicable to exhibition design, when you think about how people move through them. Some people are goal-seekers. They know which slot machine they want. They’ll go in and sit there for hours. Then you have wanderers who will go to one game, get up and go to another game, and wander around with no particular method. Some of our visitors will beeline for the “Veiled Lady” or “Lucretia.” Others will come in and wander.
That was really sort of a foundational document, an eye-opener in terms of the depths to which they examined every touchpoint from pre-visit to post-visit. It immediately gave me hope that it was possible to reopen a museum and do it safely. I never thought I would thank a casino, but I thank them.
MP: What else would you like people to know?
ML: All of our friends have been waiting for us at the museum this whole time. I haven’t gotten to see them either. Everybody’s there. You may get to see a work that you’ve never gotten to spend much time with because people were standing behind you who wanted to read the label. You may have that time now.
When Mia reopens on July 16, what will be there to see? Some galleries were already closed for renovation when COVID came, but all others will be open. The special exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration,” originally slated to close May 24, has been held over through Aug. 23. That is a paid exhibition; general admission $20.
Three new summer/fall exhibitions will open July 16: “Sky Hopinka: Disfluencies” will showcase recent videos, photography and calligrams by filmmaker, artist and writer Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians). “Rachel Breen: The Labor We Wear” will highlight the relationship among the garment industry, garment laborers and fashion consumers. Minneapolis-based artist Breen creates her installations from used clothing. “Rembrandt in Conversation” will feature a sample of Rembrandt’s prints in the company of art that triggered his interest, along with the work of other artists reacting to Rembrandt.