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We Visited the New, Socially Distant Metropolitan Museum After Its Five-month Closure

The general consensus among Met visitors during its members-only reopening seemed to be a mix of relief to get out of the house, and awe at the massive museum’s unprecedentedly sparse galleries.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopened for members on August 27, 2020 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It was a sentimental day for staff and visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York yesterday, August 27, when the museum opened its doors for the first time after long months of COVID-19 shutdown. With limited capacity, temperature checks, mandatory mask-wearing, a sea of hand sanitizing stations, and signage for social distancing at every corner, the museum welcomed back its art-starved members before reopening for all visitors Saturday, August 29. For those who might still hesitate to take the subway or bus to visit the Met, the museum will start offering a free bike valet service tomorrow.

“Isn’t this fabulous? It’s a return to sanity,” said Peggy Dodson, a Met member of five years who was pacing through the museum’s Great Hall, her eyes wide with excitement.

“I used to come here a couple of times a week on a normal basis just to decompress from everything in the city,” Dodson, who runs a media company in NYC, told Hyperallergic. “When the museum was shut down, I had been in agony. It was emotionally and mentally stressful.”

Met staffers conducting temperature checks to visitors on August 27

“The opening is a sign for me that there’s something solid under my feet,” Dodson added. “Now I feel I can go through the rest of the year.”

Dodson’s words were representative of the general atmosphere at the museum, which saw a steady stream of excited members coming through its doors between noon and 7pm yesterday.

“I saw some visitors bursting in cheers when they entered the museum,” Annie Bailis, a Senior Manager for Media Relations at the Met, told Hyperallergic. “We all feel emotional.”

“Isn’t this fabulous? It’s a return to sanity,” said Peggy Dodson, a Met member of five years
“I saw some visitors bursting in cheers when they entered the museum,” Annie Bailis, a Senior Manager for Media Relations at the Met, told Hyperallergic

Abiding by the state’s reopening regulations, the Met capped admission to 2,000 visitors per hour and 14,000 per day to allow for proper social distancing. Before entering the museum, visitors were directed to two tents on both sides of the Met’s main steps — now flanked by two huge banners by Yoko Ono that read “Dream Together” — where staff in face shields administered temperature checks.

Inside, movement throughout the museum’s 440 galleries was mostly free, except when entering Making The Met, 1870–2020, an exhibition for the museum’s 15oth anniversary, where capacity was limited. A long line of visitors trailed in front of the gallery.

Visitors can expect more changes as they return to the museum on Saturday. For example, restroom capacity is limited to three people at a time, and elevator capacity is limited to two, with priority for people with disabilities.

A sea of hand sanitizing stations and signage for social distancing
restroom capacity is limited to three people at a time and elevator capacity is limited to two, with priority to people with disabilities

Inside Making the Met, Mitch Marois, a Broadway theater worker, was inspecting a portrait of a Victorian woman in a blue dress that closely matched with his blue-dyed hair.

“The Met is my happy place,” he said. “There’s something so comforting about this place. It feels like home.” Marois added that he needs this comforting feeling as his industry remains shut down. “Reopening theatres won’t be as simple,” he said.

Reopening the Met may not have been as “simple” as Marois said, but the museum’s 2.2 million square feet of galleries did allow for a safe distance from other visitors.

In the Modern and Contemporary Art wing, Paola Roa and Rick Garcia, two immigrants from Colombia, were visibly excited. The two were part of a group of English language students on a field trip with their tutor, Joel Nunez.

Met member Mitch Marois at the exhibition Making The Met, 1870–2020

“I’m speechless,” said Roa. “I never thought I could find myself almost alone with the art at the Met.”

Roa and Garcia have both been living in New York for two years. They have plans to join universities in the city and start new careers.

A popular destination for many members was the new exhibition The American Struggle, featuring lesser-known works by the modernist painter Jacob Lawrence. The paintings and sketches on view come from Lawrence’s series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56). Small in scale but monumental in style, the works mark historic episodes in American history, like McCarthyism and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that called for the desegregation of public schools.

Visitors at the exhibition The American Struggle by Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence, “Blind Beggars” (1938), Tempera on illustration board

Photography’s Last Century, an exhibition that opened two days before the lockdown in March and was subsequently extended to November 30, was also bustling with visitors. The exhibition includes photographic works by Dora Maar, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, Diane Arbus, and Cindy Sherman, among many others. They are part of a collection of 60 photographs gifted to the Met by Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee for the museum’s 150 anniversary.

Jane, a retired New Yorker from Queens, was taking a break on a bench in the Greek and Roman Art section when she told Hyperallergic: “I missed coming here. It’s been five and a half months with no culture. This is the first opportunity to look at something not associated with the virus.”

“I never thought I could find myself almost alone with the art at the Met,” said Paola Roa, a new immigrant from Colombia
“It’s been five and a half months with no culture.,” said Jane, a retired New Yorker from Queens

Queens was one of New York’s hardest-hit boroughs during the early months of the pandemic, and according to Jane, “It still is a hotspot.” But gesturing with her hand over her forehead, she said, “I’ve had up to here with this virus.”

The general consensus among the Met members who spoke with Hyperallergic is that they felt safe inside the museum. Fast to adapt to the “new normal,” they reported that as long as other visitors remained disciplined in maintaining social distancing and mask-wearing, the risk felt minor. Visiting the Met felt safer than daily activities like shopping at the local supermarket or riding the subway, according to some.

At the entrance to the museum, José Rivera, the Met’s Deputy Chief Security Officer, was overseeing this massive reopening operation with relative calm.

“Everybody seems to be complying with the social distancing rules and they’re all wearing their face coverings,” Rivera told Hyperallergic.

Rivera is one of the museum’s longest-serving guards. On Sunday, he will celebrate his 31st year at the museum. But this will also be his last year at the Met, as he accepted a voluntary retirement package offered to him by the museum during the last round of staff reductions.

A long line of visitors trailed in from of the gallery
“Everybody seems to be complying with the social distancing rules and they’re all wearing their face coverings,” said José Rivera, the Met’s Deputy Chief Security Officer

Reflecting back on his years at the museum, he said, “We’ve had rough periods in the past, like the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy, but nothing compares to what this pandemic has caused.”

An illustrator by training, Rivera said that he plans fo fully dedicate himself to his art after his retirement. Until then, he said that his main concern is to make the Met’s return to full activity “as seamless as possible.”

When asked if he encourages people to come to visit the museum, Rivera answered with a wink: “I want people to come back, just not all on the same day.”

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