Since Pennsylvania ordered the closure of nonessential businesses, people have been asking Trish Wellenbach if she will change the name of the Philadelphia children’s museum she runs. When global health experts are advising the world to avoid touching, is the Please Touch Museum sending the wrong message?
“We will create new experiences that are more low-touch,” she said, “but allow kids to engage in play.”
As states ease restrictions, many museums and animal attractions are next in line to reopen, if they haven’t already. Like other businesses, they must enforce social distancing rules and reduce touch points, measures that run counter to their high level of interactivity. At the Please Touch Museum, for instance, kids can pretend to drive a real Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority bus, launch a rocket and build a “sandwich” in the bistro. Before closing in March, the exhibits were covered in little fingerprints, the mark of captivated children.
“What experiences are going to be viable where the spread is relatively controlled?” asked Laura Huerta Migus, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums. “Sand tables are off-limits. There is no way to sanitize sand. But we may see water tables, because they are chlorinated. Instead of components like Legos and building blocks in a communal tub, families will be given their own little bag. They will do projects, then drop off the materials for sanitation.”
To better understand how attractions are reimagining their experiences, we reached out to several museums, aquariums, zoos and wildlife centers in the country. Here is a snapshot of their look-Ma-no-hands plans.
Children's museums and centers
Before the pandemic, the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka allowed kids to roam indoors and out, from the grain pit and science lab to the pirate ship and treehouse. The center opened its 4½ -acre Nature Explore Classroom last month but will keep the inside facility closed until public health experts lift the social distancing requirement. Until then, households or social bubbling groups with up to 15 participants can rent the outdoor area for two hours. Visitors pay in advance and remain in their cars while a staff member unlocks the entrance. The center bought more disc golf gear, so the staff can rotate the used and disinfected equipment, and halved the bike inventory for sanitation purposes. To prepare the interior exhibits for visitors, Dené Mosier, the center’s president, said the staff will have to replace objects susceptible to contamination (for example, plush animals at the vet’s clinic) with safer versions (critters made of disinfectant-friendly plastic or rubber). “It’s important that this is still a hands-on experience directed by children,” she said.
Children’s Museum Houston reopened on June 5 at 20 percent capacity, or about 100 visitors per entry slot. Guests must buy tickets online for the 2½ -hour blocks. The museum installed thermal scanners to read temperatures and a sanitizing bar for washing hands before entering. Masks are mandatory for guests older than 2 years old. Before the lockdown, kids would buzz around “beehives of exploration,” said Tammie Kahn, the museum’s executive director. Now, they will set off on an Epic Adventure scavenger hunt that proceeds one-way through 10 adventure zones. To help them solve the five clues, each child will receive an Epic Adventure pack that includes an atlas and tools of detection, such as a decoder lens used to unscramble words. No more than two families will occupy a gallery at once, and staff educators will provide coaching assistance from a safe distance. Instead of ringing a bell to signal “mission accomplished,” the kids will earn a salute in Kidtropolis, plus a (faux) golden doubloon and a membership in the Adventure Society. Several amusements, including the physical challenge course and three-story climbing tower, remain closed. The staff also removed nearly 50 tactile items, such as magnetic metal washers. “We used to say ‘hands on, minds on fun,’ ” said Kahn. “We’re just leaving the first part off.”
The Please Touch Museum will have to tweak the idea behind its name before it (hopefully) reopens in mid-August. “We are going to re-engineer some exhibits for the short term,” said Wellenbach. The museum will close its 110-seat Playhouse theater and reduce the number of objects found in such galleries as Cents and Sensibilities, which teaches budding bankers about money, and the Children’s Hospital, where kids can practice medicine. In the Market + Bimbo Bakeries USA Bistro, the staff will deep clean the props representing produce, meat, dairy, bread and pastries. Children will receive individual kits in the Creative Arts Studio, instead of sharing supplies, and sit on separated mats in Hamilton Hall to watch performing arts shows. River Adventures will stay the same, because the miniaturized Schuylkill River is treated. Visitors can buy tickets for timed entry twice a day. In between periods, the museum will close for an hour to blast the interior with an electrostatic spray.
Animals and aquariums
When Tampa’s Florida Aquarium resumed operations on May 10, it was the state’s first major attraction to open and the country’s second aquarium to welcome back guests. The aquarium, which is running at 25 percent capacity, is selling online tickets at 30-minute intervals. The attraction changed the flow of traffic from every-which-way to one-way. To ensure social distancing, it placed decals of sea turtles, fish and flippers on the floor, plus a shark sticker measuring a cautious six feet. The moon jelly and stingray touch tanks are open, as is the outdoor play area with a splash pad and climbing apparatus. (The Tampa General Hospital infectious-disease team, which reviewed the aquarium’s reopening strategy, said there is no evidence that the coronavirus can spread through salt water.) However, the 4-D theater, which seats 40 guests, remains closed, and the aquarium has suspended sea-life shows, behind-the-scenes tours and other special activities, such as diving with sharks. On the plus side, the event space was converted into an open-air photo studio where guests can snap selfies with Tango, the loggerhead turtle, and other aquarium celebs. It also expanded the space inhabited by the penguins and baby alligators. “Does the experience match what you had before?” asked Roger Germann, the aquarium’s president and chief executive. “You can see the penguins in a more intimate space.”
The John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich., opened its 110-acre attraction this month but with restrictions. Several indoor attractions (aquarium, tropics building) and diversions with high touch points (petting zoo, ropes course) are limiting the number of guests to 40 for all but the ropes course. (No more than 10 people for the swinging set.) The zip-line is off-limits. To maintain a 36-foot bubble around each visitor, the zoo is allowing only 1,200 people to be on-site at one time. “We are creating a safe space for our animals, visitors and staff, and eliminating touch points,” said Peter D’Arienzo, the chief executive. To discourage crowding, the zoo will forgo scheduled animal encounters for impromptu programming. “We’re still going to do the otter feedings,” he said. “We’re just not going to publish it.” Face coverings are encouraged, and if you forget yours, the zoo has some spare surgical masks from the animal hospital. For food, visitors can grab a meal from the takeout counter or order online and have it delivered anywhere on the property — well, almost anywhere.
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a conservation facility in Glen Rose, Tex., with more than 1,100 animals, restarted its self-drive tours on May 11. Guided tours are still on hold. Visitors steer their cars through the 1,800-acre property, where the zebras, emus, giraffes, ostriches and other animals roam. Each car receives one free bag of feed, and guests must throw the pellets on the ground, with the exception of the giraffes, which can be hand-fed — a policy that predates the pandemic. The Overlook, the halfway point on the 7.2-mile Gosdin Scenic Drive, offers portable bathroom facilities (the regular restrooms are closed), the Overlook Cafe (to-go only), the Nature Store (maximum 30 people inside at once) and an opportunity to stretch your legs (remember to wear a mask when outside your vehicle). The Children’s Animal Center, a high pet area with goats, a potbellied pig and tortoises, is closed.
At the Museum of Illusions in New York City, guests use their eyes, ears and minds more than their hands. Out of 67 exhibits in a half-dozen rooms, 10 involve touching an object or surface, according to Renne Gjoni, the museum’s chief executive. For three illusions, visitors use a pencil to complete the trick, such as comparing the lengths of two triangles. The museum will remove the pencil and ask guests to use their own writing implement or cellphone. Floor decals will help visitors stand safely apart while waiting to enter, say, the Ames Room (one person looks gigantic, the other appears teeny) or Infinity Room (mirrored reflections ad infinitum). All of the rooms are ventilated, and automatic hand sanitizers are standing at the ready. When the museum reopens on July 20, selfies will capture one non-illusion: masked faces.
The Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle is highly interactive, with visitors putting their paws all over touch screens, headphones, keyboards and Xbox controllers. In anticipation of a possible midsummer reopening, the staff has made 150 adjustments in its 11 galleries, such as removing headphones, relocating cases and replacing game controllers with devices that are easier to clean. Each guest will receive a stylus pen to use for the interactive screens. For the crafting table in the Minecraft exhibition, employees will disinfect the tiles with an ultraviolet light wand, a temporary solution until the museum can introduce technology that allows visitors to grab the pieces virtually. MoPop is also exploring such contact-free forms of engagement as audio proximity activation, gesture tracking or recognition, Bluetooth and Leap Motion technologies. When visitors return, they will encounter fewer crowds (the museum will reduce capacity by 70 percent) and only one closed experience, the Sound Lab, which involves handling instruments in enclosed spaces. “The environment will be different,” said Jacob McMurray, director of curatorial, collections and exhibits, “but the content is the same.”