Letter From Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Director Sabine Haag on How to Reopen Museums With Safety Rules That Are Smart, Not Draconian

The museum director tells us about reopening responsibly to meet the needs of a new world.

Sabine Haag.
Sabine Haag, director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Austria was one of the first countries in Europe to announce that it would reopen its museums after seeing a sharp decline in the number of coronavirus infections. As of May 15, some institutions have begun to restore access to the public. The process has not been without turbulence: Despite the country’s overall rapid response to the crisis, the culture minister Ulrike Lunacek resigned amid criticism of her limited support for artists and unclear guidance to institutions. For the past few months, most of the staff at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna have been on “short-term” work, a special program from the Austrian government that has allowed the museum to retain its staff at 80 to 90 percent of their normal wages. The museum’s director Sabine Haag tells us about the challenges of implementing public-health measures and staying financially afloat while preparing to reopen the museum—home to masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Jan van Eyck, and more—in a responsible way.

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Austria reacted almost immediately to the pandemic with very rigid measures. We shut down the Kunsthistorisches Museum on March 11, the day after the government warned us that the country would be locked down on March 16. It has been quite a challenging time, and also quite a sad time to see the museum empty. But at home, we are all healthy, and that is the most important thing.

Now, Austria is in the fortunate position that, for the time being, we think the pandemic is under control. And so, step by step, the country is opening again. The first museums were allowed to open on May 15. We had been originally scheduled to reopen on July 1, but when our state secretary for culture said that museums could open earlier, there was a strong urge from the public to do so. People are longing to go back to the museum, and so we have decided to reopen on Saturday, May 30. 

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband.

Obviously, we are not doing this for economic reasons, because it will result in a financial loss. Normally in May and June, Vienna would be packed with international tourists. But the borders are closed, and the costs are always the same whether you have a blockbuster exhibition with 4,000 people coming each day or 200.

We know that the ministries are discussing very seriously the possibility of reopening some of the borders to Germany, Slovakia, Croatia, or the Czech Republic, especially ahead of the summer. But of course, nobody really knows what this will mean for the so-called “second wave.”

Nevertheless, we have heard the call from the public. Reopening is really a gesture for the people living in Austria, and we want to invite people to respond to this gesture now that they can finally come back and see their beloved Bruegel, Rubens, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael, Velázquez, and many more. We are introducing a pay-as-you-wish model from May 30 through June 30, where people are free to pay as much as they think the visit to the museum is worth to them.

What will it be like? So far, what we understand is that each visitor must have at least 10 square meters to themselves. Given the size of our museum, this means that we can have around 900 people inside at once, although this could change in accordance with government guidance. Both staff and visitors will have to wear masks, and there has to be a one-meter distance between individuals.  

It will not be mandatory to book a time slot online, but we do offer it for those who want a truly contactless experience. We have tried to think of every way to reduce physical contact, including making it possible to use the cloakroom without touching people and providing plastic-coated menus in the café that can be wiped down. We will still offer guided tours for up to 10 people, but we also encourage visitors to use their own smartphones to connect with audioguides through our beautiful interactive KHM-App.

As for crowd control, the layout of the gallery space in our museums naturally suggests a one-way route, but of course, if someone wants to turn around, we would not stop them. Our guards will be more attentive than ever to ensure that the visitor flow is smooth.

©KHM-Museumsverband

©KHM-Museumsverband

I assume things will be quite quiet at first. You will really have a chance to look at The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, and not from 10 meters away because there are so many other people in front of it. You will have time to listen to what the educators tell you, and there will be a much more intimate dialogue between the work of art and our visitors.

Aside from the financial difficulty, the main concern about reopening is that people might feel that visiting a museum is dangerous, which of course it is not. I strongly believe that visiting museums not only digitally but also in person will solve a lot of problems that people might suffer from at the moment. It helps you get out of isolation, it teaches you, it inspires you, it gives you joy, and brings you together with other people in a safe way.

During the lockdown, museums were being very inventive with their digital tools and social media, but I think people will be hungry for a personal dialogue and emotion created by something that is in front of you, whether it is a painting or a drawing or a guard they are talking to. There will be no school groups permitted, but I’m sure we will have elderly people visit. They will be cautious of course, but I know they want to break out of isolation, too.

It will be a new situation for us, catering mostly to people from Austria who might not have visited under other circumstances. In Austria, there is a saying: you go to a museum twice. Once by the hand of your grandfather, and then holding the hand of your grandson or granddaughter. But I think that this situation will bring the cultural institutions and all the works of art that are preserved there much closer to everyday life.

©KHM-Museumsverband

©KHM-Museumsverband

I’m pretty sure that there will be adaptations to the exhibition program, maybe even into 2021. Exhibitions are expensive to put on, and with travel interrupted, the lending process has also slowed down, so it might be a while before special exhibitions return. We had a very interesting video conference last Friday with more than a dozen museum directors from all over the world where we discussed how the virus has affected our business plans and programs, and what we think the future will bring.

Collaboration is more important now than ever. All museums around the globe have the same mission: to serve humanity. We are all facing the same situation, and it is really this mission, the relevance that we have for society, for the country, for the economy, that makes us more important than ever. I think it should be our goal to reopen as soon as possible, health measures permitting, as a sign of optimism. And if everyone is working for this mission of the museum—being open, collaborating, exchanging ideas—at the end of the day, we will all succeed.

As told to Naomi Rea


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