Each new attraction was careful to integrate safety measures into opening plans — sanitizing stations, regular cleanings, social distancing markers, mask requirements, temperature checks, air filtration systems — and timed entrances with advance ticket purchases are the norm. As city and state restrictions are lifted, these museums are back on track to unveil their one-of-a-kind experiences to the world.
Harriet Tubman Museum
Cape May, N.J.
Harriet Tubman’s life is well-inscribed in the history books, but time keeps revealing how much more there is to learn about her. The Harriet Tubman Museum is the newest institution to shed light on an as-yet-untold chapter of her life: her time in Cape May, N.J. Located in the Jersey Shore town, the museum is set in an old house, parts of which date back to the 19th century. Designed to be a social justice museum, it features exhibits about the time she spent there in the 1850s, when she worked as a domestic laborer and cook, as well as displays focused on the African American community in the beach town from the early 1800s through the present.
The museum was initially scheduled to open on Juneteenth, but pandemic-related setbacks pushed the ribbon-cutting to Sept. 17. It was attended by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who declared it the official Harriet Tubman Museum of New Jersey, a measure passed by unanimous vote in the New Jersey General Assembly and State Senate. The ceremony was viewed by more than 100,000 people online.
It’s an ambitious undertaking to cover 40,000 years of anything in a museum, but 40 centuries is the span of the evolution of cosmetics and perfume, the topic of the Makeup Museum, which opened in New York’s Meatpacking District on Sept. 3 after a four-month delay. To address what co-founder and executive director Doreen Bloch calls “the oldest form of human ritual,” the museum will feature rotating exhibits, starting with “Pink Jungle: 1950s Makeup in America,” a deep dive into the cutthroat beauty industry in the post-World War II years. As visitors learn about the drama among cosmetics executives, they can observe gorgeous vintage artifacts from that era, including Marilyn Monroe’s skin-care bottles and Mae West’s compact.
From the day that New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo closed arts institutions in mid-March through the summer, Bloch and her staff worked to reimagine what was intended to be an interactive experience. Touch screens, the interactive “Mix Lab,” where you can blend your own product, and the opportunity to handle objects were ditched. In their places are an interactive phone app and sanitizing stations.
“We made the decision to move to a touchless experience, but it’s done in a way that’s still spreading knowledge and making people realize that beauty is not just superficial,” Bloch said.
The written word, Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, is “the work of art nearest to life itself.” By that very wise assessment, Planet Word is an art museum unlike any the nation has seen. Originally set to debut in May, this language museum in the historic Franklin School in downtown Washington is set to open on Oct. 22.
Dubbed by this paper as a “science museum — but for the humanities,” Planet Word examines our use and perception of language through interactive exhibits on literature, etymology, famous speeches, advertising and poetry. As befitting of a language museum, many features reply to visitors’ own voices. To wit: the 22-foot-tall wall of words tricked out with a digital narrator that explains each term’s etymology when asked.
Timed entries and enhanced cleaning are part of the new modus operandi. But beyond handing out styluses so nobody has to touch any screens and ensuring listening stations are compatible with anyone’s ear device, everything can be experienced as planned. It’s an advantage of being the world’s first voice-activated museum.
“The time is right for people to experience a voice-activated museum. It’s about words and language, so it’s natural to have an immersive experience without having to touch a screen or hold something,” said Patty Isacson Sabee, the museum’s executive director. “It’s an immersive, enveloping experience that you can activate with just the power of your own voice. It does feel appropriate for the time. And it gives us great confidence knowing we can open safely and still make for a great visitor experience exactly as it was intended.”
U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum
The plan was to open the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in advance of the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, but the pandemic derailed both events. But like the athletes honored in its expansive galleries, the executive team persevered, opening the museum at the end of July.
The tribute to Team USA’s history and achievements is set in a grand, spiraling 60,000-square-foot building against the backdrop of the Rockies. It ties together the art, science, history and social progress it takes to make an elite athlete. Created to be all-inclusive, it presents a “layered capability” experience, as CEO Christopher Liedel describes it. The 12 galleries, including a Hall of Fame and an interactive training exhibit, are set along an accessible descending spiraling ramp. Guests can customize the visit based on the experience of people with four different kind of impairments: physical, sensory, cognitive and height.
The all-inclusive premise of the museum set the stage for being coronavirus-ready. “We were in the unique position to be prepared to make it as contactless as possible because we wanted to address the sensory experience of those not able to use their hands,” said Liedel.
National Museum of African American Music
The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum have a new neighbor. The National Museum of African American Music, which was slated to open before Labor Day, is on track to make its debut later this fall.
“More country, gospel, symphonic and gaming music is recorded in Nashville than anywhere else in the country,” said H. Beecher Hicks III, NMAAM president and chief executive. “This broadens Music City’s brand even further.”
The idea took root over 20 years ago, he noted, but you could absolutely say it’s been in the works for 400 years. The centuries of music covered in its halls touch on no fewer than 50 music genres and subgenres — from gospel, jazz and hip-hop to hard bop and zydeco. Memorabilia, clothing, posters, recordings and more tell the stories. In one gallery, once an hour the lights go down and a short immersive musical interlude is broadcast.
In addition to taking the standard coronavirus precautions, the museum provides a stylus to each guest to ensure a touchless visit.
There is no address for the Pocket Museum, which opened in August in downtown Hattiesburg, Miss., about 115 miles north of New Orleans. There’s no closing time, either. Or opening time, for that matter. There’s just the challenge of finding the place, which is simply designated as being in an alley. Photos on social media will help. Keep your eyes peeled for the ceramic cat statuettes and model-railroad-size figurines affixed to surfaces throughout said alley.
The Pocket Museum, which is designated “Mississippi’s Tiniest Museum,” holds the distinction of being the rare — perhaps only — museum in the country conceived and created in reaction to the pandemic-caused shutdowns. When the city’s historic Saenger Theater was shuttered in March, an adjacent alley was already in the process of getting a makeover to create a more hangout-friendly space. So when Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, which operates the theater and other attractions in this city of 50,000, noticed a boarded-up hole in a back storeroom looking out to the alley, he saw a window of opportunity. The boards were replaced with glass, and a local chef built a cabinet. The window now allows passersby to gaze in on four 3-by-12-inch shelves that house monthly exhibits, each chosen from public submissions. (“The more bizarre, the better,” Taylor says.) It debuted in August with a collection of tiny Swiss Army knives, and September visitors were treated to a menagerie of mini rubber-duckies. Taylor says exhibits are planned through September 2021.