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Philly-area museums, public gardens, and other cultural attractions start to plan for a summer return

Cultural institutions have done the nitty-gritty of planning to reopen post-pandemic. You'll be required to wear a mask at most places. At the Franklin Institute, it's one family in the Giant Heart at a time.

The Franklin Institute in the Parkway Museums District as the city lights up blue to honor healthcare workers April 7, 2020.
The Franklin Institute in the Parkway Museums District as the city lights up blue to honor healthcare workers April 7, 2020.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As the pandemic grinds on and the region inches toward a reopening of all businesses and activities, the area’s museums and cultural institutions are furiously planning and cautiously acting.

Although the grounds at Longwood Gardens are open — for members only, as of Thursday — and the fountains are operating, there are no fountain shows. It’s just too early, Longwood administrators say, to create areas that invite clustering, even outdoors.

Most big cultural operations in the area, on the other hand, do not see opening their doors to the general public until sometime toward the beginning of July at the earliest as they get the green light from public agencies. On Friday authorities announced that Philadelphia will enter a modified green phase reopening July 3.

And the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the jointly signed words of director and CEO Timothy Rub and president and COO Gail Harrity, “most likely will not be the first among its peers to reopen along the Parkway.”

“We have a large building complex to steward,” they wrote in response to an inquiry from The Inquirer. “At the same time, the museum remains a construction site in which the Core Project continues.”

Down the Parkway at the Barnes Foundation, a spokesperson said the hope is to reopen at some point during the summer, with more specific details expected soon. At the Franklin Institute on Logan Square, administrators are ready to go.

“We obviously are ready to get the institute back open,” said Larry Dubinski, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute. “I live for what we do every day. This week I started to come back in [to the institute] a little bit and usually today there’d be 3,000 people running through the museum. It’s sad not to see that.”

He’s “essentially doing my job from a computer screen in the corner of my bedroom,” he said, wistfully. “It’s been a long time.”

City guidance underway

“As the city prepares to move to green, the Health Department is developing guidance for a number of industries, including museums, to allow them to reopen with care,” spokesman Jim Garrow said in an email Wednesday.

Cultural institutions in the city that are proceeding slowly toward some kind of reopening include the Franklin Institute, the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Zoo, among others. They’ve mapped out different scenarios, and their ultimate fates may diverge over the longer term, but they also all emphasize similar broad themes: Visitor and staff safety is the single biggest concern in the minds of museum officials.

The same is true of Longwood Gardens, outside the city in Kennett Square, Chester County. Chester County has seen the lowest per-capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the five-county southeast Pennsylvania area. Longwood opened its gates a bit Thursday, for the first time since mid-March. Members only are now allowed in to outside gardens — with numerous restrictions.

All visitors must make timed reservations online. The gardens are only open Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and all indoor areas — the conservatory, the restaurant, the pump house, and the treehouses — remain closed.

“It will be very much an outdoor experience,” a Longwood spokeswoman said. The restrictions are designed to limit capacity and to limit physical contact. She said capacity would probably be reduced to about 25% of what it usually is at this time of year.

As the state moves toward the green phase of lifted restrictions, parts of the conservatory will be opened up.

The Philadelphia Zoo, which also has extensive outdoor areas, like Longwood, remains closed to the public. “We still do not have a specific opening date,” Andy Baker, the zoo’s chief operating officer told The Inquirer last week. “We are relying on receiving authorization from the state and city.”

Like Longwood, the zoo intends to open its outside areas first, and areas where significant contact between visitors is unavoidable — educational talks, swan boats, carousel, and the WildWorks climbing structure — will not immediately reopen. Masks will be required for visitors over the age of 5.

Visitors will need to buy or reserve timed tickets online in advance.

One family at a time in the heart

The plan isn’t all that different at the Franklin Institute. “We’ll be ready to go in early July,” Dubinski said. “We’re hoping that Philadelphia goes green soon, and then we’ll be able to open. There’s never been a more important time for science and what we do.”

Decisions, he said, are guided by recommendations of the CDC, the state, and the city.

The museum has instituted “enhanced cleanliness and sanitation protocols,” Dubinski said, including extra cleaning of all public surfaces and additional hand-sanitizer stations placed around the museum.

“Safety is what is driving what we’re what we’re doing. We’ve outlined additional safety practices to ensure that our staff will be well protected as well,” Dubinski said. “People who come in, we’ll have temperature checks, as well as, you know, over a certain age, people will be required to wear a mask.”

Exhibits have been rearranged to create more open space, the restaurant will have widely spaced tables, and signs will encourage proper social distancing. The Giant Heart has been coated with a clear plastic substance that allows more efficient and frequent disinfection, and only one family or group at a time will be allowed in the heart.

The institute will function with limited temporary hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Monday and Tuesday are reserved for more deep cleaning. Hourly timed tickets will need to be purchased online for both general admission and special exhibitions to limit crowds.

And this being the Franklin Institute, of course there will be a special exhibition.

“The Presidents by Madame Tussauds,” featuring life-size wax figures of every American president, as well as influential historical leaders, will greet visitors on reopening. A museum release says visitors “can pose with all 56 wax figures and learn how science and technology have shaped — and been shaped by — American culture and the leaders throughout our country’s history.” The exhibit will remain open through Jan. 3.

You’ll Mütter in orderly fashion

At the Mütter Museum, there will also be a special exhibition when the museum reopens, sometime after July 1. It’s the same timely exhibition that first went up before COVID-19 shut everything down in mid-March: “Spit Spreads Death,” an examination of the pandemic that swept the world and devastated Philadelphia after the First World War.

“Timed tickets, limited number of people, clearly delineated pathways, clearly delineated flow directions, bathroom monitoring,” said George Wohlreich, ticking off new procedures.

“I mean it’s not going to be like elementary school where you’ve got to raise your hands and go. But, you know, we can’t have people wander off whenever they want to go to the bathroom. There’ll be a system to go in an orderly fashion, you know, increased sanitation, increased cleaning. We will require everyone coming into our building to wear a mask. If they don’t have one, we’ll sell them one at a not-outrageous price.

“We are physicians, we do know the literature. And we believe people should have individual freedom, but we also think the freedom doesn’t mean the freedom to infect me.”

Staff will enforce distancing guidelines, he said, a particular concern because of the Mütter’s relatively small space. The museum’s hours of operation will most likely remain the same as they were pre-pandemic, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

Masks on for the Art Museum

At the Art Museum, staff will return probably in early to mid-July, arriving in staggered daily shifts.

Nancy Brennan and Jessica Sharpe, the museum’s head of human resources and operations, respectively, said in a joint message that a late summer reopening date is likely, including for the Rodin Museum. What happens at the Perelman building is currently under discussion and may not be included in the initial reopening, they said.

When visitors do arrive, they said open hours may be reduced to accommodate cleaning and safety; those temporary hours will be announced at a later date. Everyone, staff and visitor alike, will be required wear masks and undergo temperature checks. Coat rooms will be closed initially — visitors will be asked to limit what they bring into the museum.

Access to the museum will be via timed tickets, preferably acquired online.

Said Rub and Harrity: “Our doors — or rather the North Entrance only, at first — will reopen no sooner than when we are fully prepared and believe it to be safe for everyone.”