Guidelines for Visiting Sites and Museums
During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Thomas Dowson
The information on this page was last checked and/or updated February 2021.

As countries are loosening their travel restrictions, archaeological and historical sites and museums are still in the process of re-opening, but with new measures to ensure the safety of their visitors. Many people are now wondering what it is like to visit museums after lockdown. Based on first hand experience, Thomas gives an account of the new safety guidelines and regulations in place at various heritage attractions to minimise the spread of COVID-19.

An image of Mona Lisa wearing a face mask.

Perhaps an irreverent image, but face masks are now everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. By way of making amends, have a look at the informative series of pages the Musée du Louvre has added to their website on the Mona Lisa, including a stunning high resolution image and a video.

At the end of May 2020 many of the world’s leading museums and archaeological and historical sites remain shut in response to coronavirus (COVID-19) situation. From the Acropolis Museum in Athens to the Getty in Los Angeles, the Colosseum in Italy to Machu Picchu in Peru, these sites and museums are closed to protect their staff and visitors during the global pandemic. As some countries start to ease their lockdown restrictions, so too museums and historical sites in those nations are re-opening their doors to visitors.

There is, however, nothing like a return to the way things were in 2019, or even as late as the beginning of 2020.

On 11 May 2020, after seven weeks of shutdown, museums in Germany were given the green light from their government to re-open. Only a few did so. On 12 May 2020 the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the body responsible for a number of the more high-profile museums in Berlin including those on Museumsinsel, re-opened four museums and one temporary exhibition at the Kulturforum. Their statement announcing this news makes it quite clear the visitor experience at these museums will be very different.

Listening to the radio on the day after these few museums opened I heard a man recounting his visit to the Altes Museum. Briefly, he had the museum to himself. Rachel Howard of the Guardian Newspaper offers a wonderful account of visiting the Acropolis in Athens after lockdown there had ended. As wonderful as these early experiences must have been, we should still be mindful of the devastating toll the pandemic has taken, particularly on the tourism industry. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York estimates it may lose around $100 million, or a third of its annual budget. Many people, not just visitors, are relieved that museums and archaeological sites are once again welcoming visitors.

Opening the doors and implementing new guidelines comes at a cost, the museum of contemporary art at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin is reported to have spent over $65,000 in modifications and preparations for welcoming back visitors.

Is It Safe to Visit Museums & Heritage Sites Now?

Following periods of lockdown, heritage sites and museums are only permitted to re-open their doors if they make changes to their procedures to ensure the safety of both their staff and their visitors. The measures these institutions are taking are based on research carried out at different levels, from the international in bodies such as the World Health Organisation, to the national by governments and their scientific advisory boards (for example, see guidelines published by the following countries: Greece, Germany and France).

So too the heritage community is being proactive by establishing best-practice guidelines for museums and cultural heritage sites. The International Council of Museums, the American Institute for Conservation, and the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, are three organisations that have published specific recommendations and suggestions. As more museums and sites will re-open, and more visitors will return, so these procedures will develop as time passes.

Queues for getting on to the Acropolis in Athens.

On 18 May 2020 the Greek government re-opened archaeological sites in Greece, such as the Acropolis in Athens. Given the importance of social distancing, queues as seen last summer will be a thing of the past, for a while at least.

What Precautions Are Museums & Heritage Sites Taking?

Since restrictions on moving about in Germany were lifted I have visited a few sites and museums in Berlin. While I may not have enjoyed the Altes Museum all to myself, I certainly have experienced what it is like to visit these places in this post-lockdown period.

To give you an idea of what to expect, and to allow you to prepare for your visit, I detail how these institutions are implementing guidelines and regulations to ensure the safety of their staff and visitors. Each point of the visitor journey from entry and buying tickets to exit has been examined and changes made to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.

Book Online, In Advance

Most museums are now greatly reducing the number of people allowed in to the museum at a time. Florence Cathedral, for example, is reducing the number of visitors from 2,600 a day to 200 a day. And spreading the number of visitors evenly throughout the day. To achieve this you can only enter with a timed ticket, the kind of practice we usually see with blockbuster temporary exhibitions, such as the Tutankhamun exhibition currently on tour.

New Look Ticket Desks

Since around March 2020 we have become used to seeing perspex barriers popping up in all sorts of places, such as supermarkets and fast food outlets. And yes, they are now being used at ticket and information desks at museums and sites. Where you can not book online in advance, many of these places will only accept non-cash payments.

The ticket office at the Altes Museum on Museumsinsel, Berlin.

Perspex screens have been set up at the ticket and information desk in the Altes Museum, Berlin.

Keep Your Distance

From entry to exit, you are implored to keep your distance from other visitors; two metres seems to be the consensus. Social-distancing markers on the floor indicate where you should stand when forming a queue at ticket booths. But do expect to see a lot of perspex barriers.

The ticket office at Spandau Citadel, Berlin.

Where there is more than one queue for tickets, as at the Castello di Rivoli for example, perspex barriers have been set up between the lines. Once inside the museum, visitors are required to follow a specified route, in one direction, from gallery to gallery.

On the Acropolis in Athens there is only one point at which people can enter and exit the citadel. Where this passage passes under the propylaea and air flow is reduced, a perspex barrier has been installed separating people entering the citadel from those exiting it.

A perspex barrier divides people entering the Acropolis from those exiting.

Besides restricting the number of visitors entering an attraction at any one time and restricting the direction of movement through the attraction, staff can also control the numbers of people in a single gallery or space at one time. While some institutions have strategically placed signs reminding you to keep your distance, the trustees of the famous Florence cathedral have gone one step further.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore, the foundation that looks after the Florence Cathedral – the third largest church in the world, now requires visitors to wear an electronic device that will warn you when you are to close to another person also wearing the device. In the following video Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Opera Santa Maria del Fiore, explains the new procedures to prospective visitors. A second video focuses on how the device will work in the cathedral, and is well worth watching, if only for the stunning footage of the church itself.

Follow a Set Route

Once inside, a few museums and archaeological sites require their visitors to follow a specified route, in one direction, going from gallery to gallery or one point of interest to another. An example of this can be seen at the Paestum Archaeological Park, south of Naples in Italy. Not only are visitors required to follow a specific itinerary around the museum, they are also required to do so at the archaeological site.

As anyone who has visited Paestum will know, the archaeological site is vast. Besides a set route for the museum, the officials have created two different routes for the archaeological site – one that is intended to take 45 minutes and the other 90 minutes. These three routes are published on the official website. A website that I think is one of the best for an archaeological site in preparing their visitors for the new visiting Paestum. A lot of time has been spent working out the measures and communicating these on their website.

Maps on the Paestum website showing the set routes.

A screenshot of the official website for Paestum showing the specified routes through the archaeological site and the museum visitors are now required to follow.

Personal Protective Measures

Anyone entering museums and sites now will not be able to miss the new signs giving visitors guidelines for personal protective measures. Wearing of masks is all but taken for granted. And you are advised that if you feel ill you should stay at home. There are institutions that do take visitors’s temperatures before allowing them in. Anyone’s temperature that is over 37.5° C will not be allowed to enter.

A public safety notice at the Spandau Citadel in Berlin, Germany.

One of the signs that can be seen in German museums that provides personal protective measures for visiting museums and historic sites.

Don’t Touch!

Now more than ever the ‘don’t touch’ message is important. And this does not just apply to the objects on display. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for example now have their staff open doors for visitors. A number of museums have hand sanitation stations at regular points throughout the museum. Not all interactive elements that involve touching have been removed. Where these have remained there is always someone on hand to clean the surfaces in between use.

Among the features to go are children’s dressing up boxes. As have the events museums organise for the younger visitors. Museums are choosing to either stop issuing audio guides or making it very clear that these are being thoroughly cleaned between use by different people.

Forget about sitting down to admire a painting, or just take a break.

Screen grabs from the official app for Paestum Archaeological Park.

Besides a very informative page of their website, the Paestum Archaeological Park has also added information to their app, four screen grabs of which are shown here.

Buy Tickets, In Advance, From Reputable Sources

As mentioned above, many attractions now require their visitors to book in advance, online. Whether you are buying entry tickets to an attraction or for an activity, not only be careful who you are buying from, but also which attractions you are visiting. For many reasons we at Archaeology Travel recommend GetYourGuide, and have been doing for a while (read our Code of Ethics statement to see more).

Not surprisingly GetYourGuide has been proactive to the post lockdown environment. They were the first company to allow customers to cancel their tickets and reservations up until 24 hours before the start of the activity and get a full refund. So now you do not have to worry about buying tickets only to find that you can no longer attend if new restrictions are imposed.

Guidelines for what practices are followed by operators.

But GetYourGuide have gone further and have added important information to each of their listings to enable you to purchase with confidence. When buying a ticket or making a reservation for an activity, check to see what measures are in place that ensure your safety.

In the above example, the venue that this was taken for not only complies with national regulations that require masks to be worn, but they very carefully monitor the flow of visitors through the museum to ensure there are no crowds and that social distancing is possible.

Often there are displays at some attractions that involve some sort of physical interaction – such as pressing buttons. Sadly many museums have stopped the use of these altogether, but some have been very clever in adapting their interactive displays (the best example I have seen was the use of infra red signals at Little Big City in Berlin). Or the venue/operator ensure that touch-points are regularly cleaned, thus greatly reducing the spread of the virus.

Explore where you want to go on GetYourGuide. And if you can not travel in person, take a Virtual Tour instead >>

A New Normal?

“Museums are carefully controlled spaces that have been designed to protect artworks from people. To adapt that to protecting people from people is a small step.”

Carolyn Chrystov-Bakargiev
Director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin

It is far too early to make any sensible statement about how long these guidelines will be in place. For now, I have been impressed with the way in which the museums and sites I visited have handled this situation. Of course it is a different experience, but I do not feel my enjoyment of these places was negatively affected because of the new procedures in place. I hasten to add, these are early days and visitor numbers are low. As more and more people begin visiting museums and sites again, I appreciate I may feel quite differently about my encounters.

Certainly, each institution has their own guidelines. For this reason and as always on Archaeology Travel, our advice to our readers is to check official websites for institution-specific guidelines and regulations. We suggest starting with a search such as ‘[museum name] coronavirus guidelines’. And to avoid disappointment, do so before you set off. Most museums have a specific page dedicated to their guidelines. Not all websites have specific guideline, but this may improve as these institutions work out their respective strategies. See the following examples: Deutsches Spionagemuseum, State Museums of Berlin, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Die Pinakotheken (Munich). One of the best websites, in my opinion, is that for Paestum Archaeological Park.

We will update this page with more information about the different measures museums and historical sites are taking to protect their staff and visitors as and when we hear about them. If your museum or site is doing something particularly interesting, or has a particularly informative page outlining their strategy, let us know in a comment below.