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Chicago-area museums reopen to onsite visitors, with safety protocols firmly in place

Each institution reinitiating on-site operations has adopted a set of protocols to keep visitors and staff as safe as possible.

Hollis Sigler, She Wants To Belong To The Sky, Again, 1981. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Hollis Sigler, “She Wants To Belong To The Sky, Again,” 1981, is featured in the “Just Connect” exhibit at the MCA.
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Nathan Keay/© MCA Chicago

After a financially damaging four-month-plus closure because of safety restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, many museums across Chicago have already reopened or are set to reopen in the next few weeks.

The Elmhurst Art Museum unshuttered its doors on June 30, and the Chicago History Museum did the same on July 10. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Field Museum will begin welcoming the public on July 24, and the Art Institute of Chicago has chosen a restart date of July 30.

“We’ve all been waiting for this, and it’s exciting to welcome people back,” said Kati Murphy, the Art Institute’s executive director of public affairs. “Having the first week free for Illinois residents, it really feels like we’re rolling out the red carpet for the people of Chicago and Illinois who have missed the opportunity to experience culture.”

The Art Institute sought to follow state and local coronavirus guidelines for reopening and also uphold its own visitor standards. “We recognized,” Murphy said, “what we needed to do inside the galleries, what we needed to do to train our staff, and July 30 became the date that became most realistic for us to be confident in our abilities to give visitors what they expect.”

Some other area museums, though, remain closed. The National Museum of Mexican Art, for example, has not set a restart date, and Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art is looking toward possibly hosting visitors when the school’s winter quarter begins in January.

Each institution reinitiating on-site operations has adopted a set of protocols to keep visitors and staff as safe as possible. These include supplementary cleaning, augmented contactless interaction, additional spacing and one-way pathways and closures of small and constricted galleries.

“As a scientific institution,” said Jacob Shuler, the Field Museum’s guest relations manager, “we’ve been following the studies and advice of medical professionals since we closed in March and as we started to draw up the plans for what we thought a safe reopening might look like.”

The Field Museum reopens July 24 with new safety protocols in place, including social distancing, masks and touch-free ticketing.
The Field Museum reopens July 24 with new safety protocols in place, including social distancing, masks and touch-free ticketing.
Courtesy the Field Museum

At the same time, each museum has to be ready to respond and as guidelines change with the ups and downs in COVID-19 cases or an in-house outbreak of the disease is discovered. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the reality of right now,” said John McKinnon, executive director of the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Here are some highlights of exhibitions that are or soon will be on view as museums restart, and a look what has been postponed:

Reopening exhibitions:

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). “A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (El Soplón),” about 1570. | Colomer Collection, Madrid. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), “A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (El Soplón),” about 1570.
Colomer Collection, Madrid. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

— Extended through Oct. 19, “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance” (originally scheduled March 7-June 21), Art Institute. The first major exhibition in 15 years devoted to the famed 16th-century painter, it contains 55 works, including the “The Assumption of the Virgin” (1577-79). The show will look as it did prior to closing, but there is no longer a supplementary charge to see it and restrictions have been placed on how many people can be in the galleries at any one time.

Extended likely through Summer 2021 (no specific date has been set), “Apsáaooke Women and Warriors,” (originally scheduled March 13, 2020-April 4, 2021), Field Museum. The institution’s first major exhibition curated by a Native scholar, it focuses on the art and culture of the Apsáaooke or Crow Tribe. The show was on view just one day before the museum was forced to close because of Coronavirus restrictions. The re-opened offering will be presented with virtually no alterations, because the museum’s special exhibitions were already arranged with ample visitor flow and spacing.

Ben Pease, “Sacred Under the Cliff of Yellowstone,” is featured in “Apsáaooke Women and Warriors” at the Field Museum.
Ben Pease, “Sacred Under the Cliff of Yellowstone,” is featured in “Apsáaooke Women and Warriors” at the Field Museum.
Courtesy The Field Museum

— Extended through Jan. 3, 2021, “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” (originally scheduled Oct. 27, 2018-Dec. 2, 2019), Chicago History Museum. This show features nearly 300 objects from the 1930s through ‘50s that highlight Chicago industry’s role in popularizing the streamlined look. The show was first truncated because of a pipe burst and was cut off again with the COVID-19 shutdown. “We thought we would just keep it up,” said John Russick, the museum’s senior vice president. “It’s a crowd-pleaser. People love this art-deco material.”

New exhibitions:

— July 24-Nov. 7, “Just Connect,” Museum of Contemporary Art. Museum press materials describe it “a timely exhibition on how the pandemic has made us more aware of our desire to connect, and how we depend on our communities and families for a sense of belonging.” The show features popular and rarely seen works from the MCA collection by such artists as Marina Abramović, Jenny Holzer, Kerry James Marshall, Francesca Woodman and Akram Zaatari.

— Sept. 8-Nov. 22, “Art in the Post,” Elmhurst Art Museum. The art museum is soliciting submissions of postcards or index cards decorated with text and images that respond in some way to the Coronavirus quarantine and more recent events like the Black Lives Matter protests. Submissions from people of any age are due Aug. 30, and they will be displayed in the museum’s Hostetler Gallery.

Claude Monet, “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt,” 1868,  is among the works in “Monet and Chicago,” now opening Sept. 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Claude Monet, “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt,” 1868, is among the works in “Monet and Chicago,” now opening Sept. 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection

Postponed exhibition:

Sept. 3-Jan. 18, 2021, “Monet and Chicago” (originally scheduled May 10-Sept. 7), Art Institute. Although delayed, this show, which looks at the relationship between the famed French Impressionist and Chicago art collectors, will proceed as originally planned. Because most of the outside works for this exhibition are from local collections, Murphy said, extending those loans was considerably easier than if they were coming from afar. To allow for proper social distancing, the show’s original layout in Regenstein Hall has been expanded, and partition walls and benches removed.

Exhibition with an unknown future:

— Opening unknown, “Jurassic Oceans” (originally scheduled June 12-Jan. 3, 2021), Field Museum. The exhibition of prehistoric marine predators, organized by the Natural History Museum in London, was to have come to Chicago after being on view in Bahrain, but the pandemic has thrown shipping and scheduling into chaos. “We’re still working with the restrictions in London where the show is coming from to decide if there is a good plan to move forward,” Shuler said. “But at this point, we will just update the public when we know more.”

Other museum reopening dates: Museum of Broadcast Communications, July 24, and the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Aug. 1.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.