When pandemic shutdowns began in early 2020, museums were among the first to offer creative virtual offerings to art lovers quarantined at home. And now, as many of California’s great museums reopen, they are doing more than just picking up where they left off.
Like other attractions reopening across the state, museums have introduced pandemic-minded safety protocols, such as online tickets and marked floors to promote physical distancing. As extra reassurance, a recent study showed that visiting an indoor museum posed less COVID-19 risk than going to a supermarket or the office.
“It is heartening to see California museums reopening after months—or even over a year—of being closed to the public,” says Celeste DeWald, executive director, California Association of Museums. The organization’s 1,200 members include the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, the Bakersfield Museum of Art, and the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine. “Each reopening is a significant step in providing the mental, cultural, and economic benefits that are sorely needed."
Those mental benefits are tangible, according to experts.
“Experiencing art in person offers unique healing, joy, and insights that we hope can play a meaningful role in collective recovery,” says Joanne Heyler, the founding director of The Broad in Los Angeles, which reopens May 26. The downtown L.A. museum is marking its reopening by debuting some recent acquisitions by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Kara Walker, and Andy Warhol.
Other museums across California are offering their own thoughtful returns. At SFMOMA, for instance, Bay Area Walls highlights issue-driven murals created during 2020, and Close to Home: Creativity in Crisis showcases seven San Francisco artists’ reactions to the pandemic. Several other destination museums have already welcomed back fans, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Palm Springs Art Museum, and most of the 17 museums at San Diego’s Balboa Park, including the San Diego Air and Space Museum and The Museum of Us.
In May, openings include San Francisco’s Legion of Honor (May 7); Riverside’s UCR Arts, including the California Museum of Photography (May 13); and San Jose’s The Tech Interactive (May 29). The Getty Center, meanwhile, is tentatively scheduled to open its main site in late May.
Aside from now-standard protocols like face-covering requirements and enhanced cleaning practices, many museums have specialized guidelines based on their individual spaces and exhibits—a good reason to look at any given museum’s website first when planning a visit. Here are a few things to expect:
Days and hours may have changed. Many museums are keeping hours similar to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, open from Thursdays through Sundays. Inside, some areas and activities may be on hold, such as hands-on exhibits and happy hour events. Some museum cafés are operating, typically with grab-and-go food, but most museum stores are now open.
Museums may require that you book timed-arrival tickets online. Given capacity limits, some museums release batches of tickets on set timeframes. The de Young Museum in San Francisco, for instance, is releasing tickets in 60-day increments, while the LACMA releases a week’s worth of tickets at a time—for members on Wednesdays and then the general public on Thursdays. You can stay informed by signing up for ticket alerts.
Those arrival times are serious, too: You may get only a 15- to 90-minute grace period around your booked arrival time. The good news: Once you arrive for any museum visit, you can still stay until closing if you like. Also, while advance planning is strongly recommended, it isn’t always mandatory. At Moxi: The Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation in Santa Barbara, walk-up visitors are allowed in if capacity has not been met.
Leave the personal items at home. Most museums are suspending coat-check services and ask that you not bring in backpacks. Individual museum websites will tell you if there is a bag-check area or perhaps a self-serve option, like the coin-operated bag-and-coat check at The Crocker.
Download the app, if the museum has one, or take an audio tour. Check individual museum websites for tours, maps, or captions you can download ahead of time, since the usual tours and paper brochures likely won’t be available. Spacing guidelines, meanwhile, may make it difficult to get up close to placards next to paintings, so audio tours or captions on your own device will help a lot. Also, BYOE—bring your own earbuds.
The Haggin Museum in Stockton, for instance, offers maps and a self-guided highlights tour you can download, and the de Young and Legion of Honor offer audio tours for $8. At the Maritime Museum of San Diego, you can download the map for the self-guided tour along the top decks of historic ships (tip: for $5 extra admission, you can also add a 45-minute Historic Bay Cruise to your visit). When it reopens, The Broad will introduce a free mobile museum guide that includes maps and three free audio tours, including a kids’ tour narrated by LeVar Burton.