Following Gov. Greg Abbott’s April 27 announcement that Texas museums could officially reopen May 1, most San Antonio institutions chose to remain cautious.

The McNay Art Museum, San Antonio Museum of Art, Blue Star Contemporary, Villa Finale, and other museums stayed with online programming that had been quickly developed and expanded during the citywide shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now that enough time has passed to allow for preparations, at least three museums have announced reopening plans: the Witte Museum, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, and the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.

Witte Museum

Reopening is old hat for the Witte Museum. Having already gone through a reopening process in 2017 after its major expansion, a basic understanding of what would be necessary was already in place.

However, the current pandemic is entirely new, and necessitated a task force to consider how and when to safely reopen to the public. As Executive Director Marise McDermott noted, museums have spent years making exhibits more and more “immersive,” with hands-on experiences and other forms of interactivity. Now, “it’s just a new day,” she said.

First, the task force considered which exhibits would have to be removed, and how other areas of the museum might be altered to accommodate social distancing. Staff member Bryan Bayles, curator of anthropology and health, was instrumental in researching safety protocols, thanks in part to his many contacts in the San Antonio healthcare community.

Plexiglas shields have been installed wherever museumgoers interact directly with museum staff, including the ticket counter and gift shop, signage indicates particular protocols for specific exhibits — including themed social distancing images such as staying the length of a bison or a Fiesta train, both about 6 feet apart — and all public areas of the museum will be regularly sanitized throughout each day.

Also, the spacious 10-acre museum grounds offer plentiful opportunities for social distancing, particularly the river side areas, McDermott said. “We really want people to spend time along the riverside because it is so glorious right now.”

The Witte’s reopening task force also included Bill Anderson, executive vice president of H-E-B’s San Antonio Food and Drug Retail Division. H-E-B has earned praise for its foresight and cautious handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and Anderson was able to relate his own expertise and that of his colleagues throughout the business community while advising the Witte on how to safely reopen to the public.

Every visitor to the Witte will receive a disposable stylus that allows guests to interact with touch panels throughout the museum. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

However, McDermott identified one very small item as the key to a successful reopening program: the stylus. Witte Chief Business Officer Kim Biffle ordered 50,000 small plastic pointers for the public to use when interacting with digital touch screens, to help avoid any potential spread of infection. Touch-sensitive screens can be activated by the stylus rather than germ-spreading fingers, so that museumgoers can still navigate the interior and grounds of the Witte, along with a smartphone app to be used in place of paper maps.

Each person will keep their stylus, and McDermott said she hopes the museum is visited frequently enough in the coming days to have to order 50,000 more if needed.

Biffle was in charge of the 2017 reopening and brought out her “giant notebook” to guide opening back up after the citywide shutdown of public spaces. Given their prior experience, McDermott said Biffle’s advice for reopening during the current crisis was “let’s not reinvent all the wheels, let’s just reinvent the pandemic wheels.”

A members-only period from May 27-29 will allow an opportunity for a feedback before the public opening May 30, McDermott said, a process also used prior to the 2017 reopening. Patrons will be surveyed on their level of comfort during their visit, how successful exhibits convey information, and the overall experience.

“We’re in a good position,” said Executive Director Marise McDermott. “And this community is in a good position,” due to having information widely available on safety procedures and effective planning.

Briscoe Western Art Museum

The Briscoe Western Art Museum responded quickly to the citywide closure by moving its annual Night of Artists exhibition and sale online, which has been extended through July 26.

Last week, the museum announced that it would reopen in two stages similar to the Witte, with members-only visits May 21-22, before opening to the wider public on May 23. “In true Western hospitality,” its press announcement reads, admission will be half price through Memorial Day weekend May 23-25.

Healthcare workers will receive free admission throughout the summer, as a show of appreciation for their “tireless” work, the announcement states.

The Briscoe Western Art Museum.
The Briscoe Western Art Museum Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Safety measures include advance ticket purchase online, admission limits for exhibits and the museum store, plexiglas shields at staff interaction points, and active cleaning protocols. The museum theater and elevator will allow only one family unit in at a time.

The San Antonio Public Library Portal and Jack Guenther Pavilion will remain closed, however the outdoor McNutt sculpture garden will be open.

Inside, visitors will have their first chance to see the 285 artworks in the Night of Artists exhibition in person.

“I know from personal experience the power of art to help lift spirits and provide relief from all the weights of daily living,” said President and CEO Michael Duchemin. “The art and beauty shared through Night of Artists gives us shelter from the storm of all that we’re facing now.”

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National Museum of the Pacific War

The 55,000-square-foot facility in Fredericksburg housing the National Museum of the Pacific War might be huge, but its access aisles are narrow, said Marketing Director Ruth Ann Hattori.

The only real delay in reopening was figuring out how to allow guests to maintain proper social distance and feel comfortable and safe during their visits, Hattori said. The answer was pre-registered guided visits Wednesdays through Sundays, which the museum will begin offering May 15.

Members can register for a guided visit from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., while the general public can register for two periods: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 2 to 4:30 p.m. Each tour will include what Hattori called the “macro artifacts” — military jets and other large implements of war — in the Admiral Nimitz Gallery, and the George H.W. Bush Gallery.

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Karen Stevenson opens the doors to the Admiral Nimitz Gallery where small details such as foot pulls for the doors have been installed. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

As goes Fredericksburg, so goes the museum, Hattori said. “There have been quite a few visitors in Fredericksburg the last two weekends,” and the number of visitors is generally commensurate. In a normal year, admission tickets would be expected to match the 2019 total of 177,000 visitors, but Hattori said no one knows quite what to expect as the museum begins its reopening process.

Hattori said the pandemic shutdown has allowed the museum to rediscover its own hidden potentials. Historically, she said, beyond maintaining a digital archive they have not produced much online content, but “after we closed, we really ramped up our production of visual content” including the new Nimitz Minitz lessons for kids, and other content for their YouTube channel.

“It gives you some of the flavor of what you might learn if you come to the museum, but in a virtual way,” she said. The popularity of the content has sparked a desire to continue virtual offerings even after the museum finally reopens for good.

“Not all Texans even get to Fredericksburg, much less people from the rest of the country or the world,” Hattori said. “We see [online content] as a way to reach many more people who may never visit the museum. This would be a way that they can visit us from their own home.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...