Look but don't touch when capital's museums reopen

Shuttered for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the capital's national museums and galleries are carefully preparing for the new reality, while counting their losses.  

Shuttered for months, museums and galleries are carefully preparing for the new reality

The Canadian Museum of Nature's reopening plan includes limiting entry to 25 visitors every 15 minutes. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

National museums in Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., are aiming to reopen in late summer or early fall, but things will be very different when they do.

The days of wandering freely through exhibits and engaging with interactive displays are over, at least for the foreseeable future.

Instead, expect limited entry, new safety protocols and plenty of physical distancing in order to keep COVID-19 in check.

"Many of the interactives will have to be turned off, many of the video screens will need to be turned off," said Meg Beckel, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature, which plans to reopen to the public in early September if provincial protocols allow. 

Phase 2 of Ontario's reopening plan begins Friday in many parts of the province including Ottawa. It allows museums, galleries, zoos and other public attractions to reopen with certain restrictions, including:

  • Interactive and "high-contact exhibits" must remain closed.
  • Physical distancing of at least two metres must be maintained.
  • Timed entry, and limits on the number of visitors allowed inside at any one time.
  • "Managed visitor flow," such as one-way foot traffic.
  • "Establishments should consider operating by appointment and/or record each patron's name and contact information for the purposes of contact tracing."

WATCH: 'No touch environment' at art museums a boon in the time of COVID-19, gallery director says

‘No touch environment’ at art museums a boon in the time of COVID-19, gallery director says

3 years ago
Duration 0:54
Sasha Suda, director of the National Gallery of Canada, says the gallery’s open spaces and long-standing no-touch policy may make the process of reopening easier.

When the museum does reopen, there will be directional signs to guide visitors through the exhibits and markings on the floor to keep them a safe distance apart.

"We're looking at welcoming about 25 people every 15 minutes," Beckel said. "We've created a traffic circle in the middle of the atrium to keep the traffic flowing in one direction in an orderly formation."

The National Gallery of Canada hasn't settled on a reopening date either, though it's eyeing late July or early August, according to director and CEO Sasha Suda.

The National Gallery of Canada hopes to reopen by August, if not sooner. But there will be changes there, too. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Suda said the art gallery's wide-open spaces and general rule against touching exhibits makes the job of reopening easier than at other museums.

"I had a staff member say to me this morning we were saying not to touch before it was cool," Suda joked.

Visitors to the gallery can expect limited admission to cut down on the number of people allowed inside at once. They'll also be offered masks and hand sanitizer, Suda said.

There will be demonstrations and displays about Indigenous culture at the Canadian Museum of History in August, but they'll be outside the building. (Canadian Museum of History)

The Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa have drawn up their own plans for free programming and limited access to their buildings, likely starting in August. The Crown corporation that operates the museums said it must align itself will reopening rules set out by both provinces, while incorporating guidance from the federal government.

"We're opening up space where we can respect social distancing, and then try to really use the exterior spaces of the museums in ways that offer experiences to visitors that would be meaningful and interesting for them," said president and CEO Mark O'Neill.

That will likely mean displays and demonstrations of military vehicles and other artifacts outside, as well as guided tours for small groups. Wider access to the museums won't be available until at least September, O'Neill said.

"It's going to be very difficult to create social distancing bubbles."

Scenes like this at the Canada Science and Technology Museum will be a thing of the past. (David Jackson/Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Beckel said museums will need to adapt to the new reality, and while she'll miss seeing children excitedly pushing buttons and pulling levers, that type of interactive display is likely a thing of the past. Instead, new exhibits will be equipped with motion-sensitive technology.

"I think the future of interactivity is going to require an investment in new ways of triggering the interactive experience with no touch," she said. "So instead of a button, you'll wave your hand."

It's tricky for us. How do you imagine a science and tech museum without a crazy kitchen?- Christina Tessier, Ingenium

​Christina Tessier, president and CEO of Ingenium, which includes the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, said all three are eyeing an August reopening.

Tessier said the Science and Technology Museum will be the most difficult to adapt because of its large number of interactive exhibits, now off limits.

"It's tricky for us. How do you imagine a science and tech museum without a crazy kitchen?" Tessier said, referring to the museum's famous illusory room, a favourite with generations of visitors. "It will become a much more visual experience for those who are touring through."

All these museums are taking an unprecedented financial hit this summer, normally their most lucrative season.

Suda expects the National Gallery of Canada to lose out on about $7.5 million in attendance, parking and special event fees. Then there's the heavy cost of reopening.

WATCH: Museums pull away from interactive exhibits ahead of reopening

Museums pull away from interactive exhibits ahead of reopening

3 years ago
Duration 0:36
Christina Tessier, president and CEO of Ingenium, says interactive displays and exhibits will have to be off-limits when it comes time to reopen.

"We're looking at an additional roughly $1 million that we're going to need to put toward reopening for extra security, for extra cleaning, for personal protective equipment," Suda said.

Beckel pegs the financial impact to the Canadian Museum of Nature at $8.4 million, which includes the cost of reopening and installing new security measures.

"We are used to welcoming thousands of people every day," said O'Neill, who estimates losses for his two museums at between $10 million and $15 million in ticket revenue and cancelled weddings and banquets.

"We know the incredibly negative, destructive impact of all of this," he said.

Armoured military vehicles will be displayed outside the Canadian War Museum starting in August. (Canadian War Museum)


  • An earlier version of this story stated Phase 2 of Ontario's reopening plan doesn't include museums and galleries. It does, but with certain restrictions.
    Jun 11, 2020 7:59 AM ET


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at

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