by Mark Kennedy (Associated Press) | August 26, 2020
NEW YORK (AP) -- When the iconic T. Rex at the American Museum of Natural History again welcomes visitors, it will gaze down at humans acting a bit differently.

The visitors will still gape up at its massive skeleton, but there will be fewer of them. They will stand farther apart, and will now wear masks. Other pandemic precautions will be on display, from hand-sanitizer stations to the one-way signs guiding guests through exhibits.

The museum is like many cultural institutions in the city gingerly reopening their doors, weighing the safety of visitors and staff with the need to educate, inspire and support New York's recovery.

"We have to reimagine and reengineer the museum visit," says Ellen Futter, president of the history museum. "We want to fulfill our civic mission. And we think that our mission has never been more important."

New York City was by far the hardest-hit U.S. city by the pandemic, but it's also home to world-class cultural institutions that have for decades -- and city leaders hope will once again -- drawn millions.

The Museum of Modern Art opens Thursday and the Metropolitan Museum of Art reopens its Upper East Side home on Saturday. The American Museum of Natural History plans to reopen to the public Sept. 9.

City museums are instituting a range of precautions, including reduced hours, reserved tickets, mandated mask-wearing and limited attendance to a quarter of capacity. Movie theaters, coat rooms and food courts will be closed.

Some of the new rules may make future trips to a museum less spontaneous and escapist, but there are some benefits.

"It's true that it will be less crowded. It also will be more intimate and it may give people a different view of things. I don't think that will diminish in the least the sense of the visit," said Futter.

Other institutions need a bit more time. The Guggenheim will reopen on Oct. 3, while the 9/11 Memorial Museum will reopen on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Whether anyone will come is the big question.

"There are a lot of unknowns out there. We don't know whether people will feel comfortable coming back. We don't know whether they'll feel comfortable being with several hundred people indoors, even if we're a very large space," said Glenn Lowry, MoMA's director. "We ardently believe that people will want to come back to museums and to see the things that are both familiar and unfamiliar -- see the things that animate their minds, that make them feel alive."

Welcoming back visitors is also a chance to end months of lost ticket sales. Each facility has different financial models, but for those that rely heavily on attendance, the pandemic has been crippling. The Natural History Museum alone has lost as much as $120 million.

While MoMA is looking at "significant losses" for up to three years, it will not charge visitors for the first month. "It just felt like the right gesture," said Lowry. "I think once you've lost a lot of money, losing a little bit more isn't really the big issue."

To add to the financial burden, most museums have been forced to pay for safety upgrades, like more staff, creating touchless bathrooms and adding costly air-filtration systems.

"Every institution is having to look long and hard at their financial model and scale back, postponing and canceling programs and events while simultaneously pushing forward on all fundraising cylinders," said Regan Grusy, vice president of strategic partnerships at the New Museum.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of the first in the city to close and, with no federal guidance, stepped up to help lead a working group of about 25 museums in the city sharing info and creating protocols.

"The question we all face is, 'How long will we have to limit the numbers of visitors?' If the answer is 5 years, it would be devastating," said Met president and CEO Daniel Weiss.

The Corona neighborhood in Queens was one the hardest-hit sections of the hardest-hit city. Yet it is home to a museum not built for pandemics -- the hands-on, highly interactive New York Hall of Science. The Hall prides itself on being a place where children engage with the exhibits and it is not willing to change its goals and go touchless or remove exhibitions. It hopes to reopen next spring.

"We're not going to back off of our core approach and core methodology," said Margaret Honey, president and CEO. "We believe that the world will return to doing those kinds of activities when it's safe to do so."

Over in Manhattan, the silent T. Rex at the Natural History museum might actually put the pandemic into perspective. It reminds visitors they are part of a churning evolution.

"We've seen great challenges and really deeply disturbing times before, but we'll get through this," said Futter. "And the museum reopening is part of that for us, for our visitors and for the city. And we're very excited about it."