The Science Museum of Virginia has been focused on reopening since the day it closed to the public almost six months ago. And now that time is here.
The museum is open to members this week and will open to all guests Saturday, September 5.
Before reopening, Rich Conti, the museum’s chief wonder officer, and the museum’s team studied what other museums, science centers, and cultural organizations were focusing on to get their doors reopened.
“As institutions across the country were planning for how to reopen in a safe manner, we were inundated with great ideas and thinking from across the field. It made me realize how special that is,” says Conti. “Throughout this pandemic, museums have literally opened their policy and protocol playbooks for all to see, offered up hundreds of innovative ideas and for those that opened earlier than others, shared freely what worked and what didn’t. There was never the fear that someone would steal something; if the museum community could benefit from the knowledge, it was actively and happily spread to everyone.”
Visitors to the museum will see many changes; all made to ensure that everyone stays safe and healthy. Cleaning procedures have been stepped up and hands-free door handles have been added in the restrooms. HVAC were adjusted to increase the amount of outside airflow. Face coverings will be required for all guests.
Even the building is sporting a giant mask. “We’ve always used that space to put up banners promoting museum exhibits, special activities and community events,” says Jennifer Guild, manager of communications and curiosity. “The mask banner is no different: it’s our way of promoting that current science says masks are one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, our way to show support for the science.”
The museum’s large interior space is an asset because it allows for social distancing while visiting the museum. Each space in the museum was scrutinized to see if people could appropriately social distance.
“Some of our smaller spaces such as our Art Lab, Science Lab, Cottrell Theater, etc. will remain closed when we reopen until we are able to design a way for guests to flow through those spaces with enough distance,” Conti says. “Taking this systematic, methodical approach kept things from feeling overwhelming.”
To make sure that social distancing is followed, the museum will only admit 12 guests every 15 minutes. The museum’s full reopening procedures can be found here.
Because of the reduced crowds, “guests will feel like they almost have the museum to themselves,” says Conti, adding that last year the museum surpassed 500,000 guests and it was on track for close to 600,000 this year.
Check out the Giant Insects
The museum is able to keep the Giant Insects traveling exhibition on display through November 1.
“The pandemic-induced closure robbed our guests of the opportunity to explore Giant Insects before it was scheduled to leave at the end of August,” Guild says. “Traveling exhibits are on a specific schedule because they move from site to site. We worked with the team who created the exhibit and they were willing to let us keep the display two more months so we could give our guests the chance to see the big bugs a little longer, and we’re very excited that it worked out this way.”
While the interactive elements have been removed from the exhibit, its six enormous, robotic insects ranging from forty to 120 times larger than life-size and terrariums with live bugs are still on view.
Good Timing for Change
Even though the museum has been closed to the public, museum staff members have been working for the past several months to complete several interior enhancement projects such as repainting stairwells and transforming the café into a flexible-use space.
In addition to the interior projects, exterior construction work has started on the new parking deck, scheduled for completion in early fall 2021. “The deck will increase parking capacity and be more user friendly for guests,” Guild says. “It is the first step in the museum’s site master plan of creating a new urban green space.”
This pandemic has forced the museum to look at everything it does from a different perspective. “Even though the museum has been a part of the community for more than four decades, I’m challenging the team to look at the museum as a start-up,” Conti says. “We will look at ways to reinvent ourselves for this new normal, while staying true to who we were in the past. This entrepreneurial spirit will make us a stronger museum.”
The museum has added a number of virtual programs and beefed up its digital offerings (See the Stay Connected page at smv.org/stay-connected) this year. Much of that content, such as the live astronomy shows on Facebook each Thursday at 2 p.m. and virtual Lunch Break Science presentations featuring experts in the field and at-home STEM activity materials, will continue after the museum reopens.
The museum is also addressing aspects of the pandemic from a scientific point of view. It has hosted a series of digital lectures and events that have touched on aspects of the pandemic, “and we’ve created blogs, videos and activities families can do at home to explain things like how viruses jump from animals to humans, mask efficacy, or the importance of hand washing,” Conti says, adding they are addressing these issues inside the museum as well. “We’ll continue to look at ways we can help educate our community about the science behind the pandemic.”