A masked visitor interacts with the "Critical Distance" augmented reality experience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. (image courtesy Smithsonian)

The Smithsonian Institution announced yesterday that it will be dropping its mask mandate across its 19 museums and the National Zoo starting this Friday. The organization justified the change as a reflection of recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and “local and national guidelines around masking indoors,” and cited a drastic reduction in COVID-19 infections in Washington, DC since January. None of the Smithsonian museums require visitors to show proof of vaccination.

In addition to having the option to roam mask-free, visitors to the two most popular Smithsonian museums — the National Zoo and the National Museum of Natural History — will be able to drop by on more days of the week. In recent months, DC’s National Zoo has been closed Mondays through Wednesdays, and the National Museum of Natural History has been closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Both will resume operations seven days a week, returning to their pre-pandemic schedules.

Late last year, the Smithsonian closed four of its smaller museums — The National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, and the National Museum of Asian Art — for a few days during the Omicron surge due to staff shortages. The National Museum of Natural History followed suit, also announcing a few days of temporary closure at the end of December.

Meanwhile, other institutions tightened their COVID safety measures: The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, said in January that visitors must arrive wearing a surgical, KN95, N95, or KF94 face mask, banning cloth masks, bandanas, and other forms of face coverings.

Most major museums still require visitors to be masked indoors. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is often seen as a bellwether for the industry along with the Smithsonian, told Hyperallergic that its mask requirement will remain in place for the time being but that it has stopped enforcing vaccination checks. Such changes may indicate increasing confidence on the part of museum directors that visitors feel comfortable at this stage of the pandemic without such policies in place.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.