Museums' treasures endure, but how we see them may change

As Europe’s museums emerge from lockdown, visitors experience unique moments of peace amid the new “normal.”

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Antonio Canova's The Three Graces (1812-1817) cling together in an empty rotunda of Milan's Galleria d’Italia. The photographs here were captured in late April and early May of this year when Italy's museums were under lockdown, capturing the unique, fleeting solitude many museum visitors are now seeking out.

At 9:00 sharp on a recent June morning, Peter Campbell stood at the entrance to Naples’ famed National Archaeology Museum. Although the museum had been officially reopened for several weeks since Italy lifted its lockdown, and in normal times can host thousands of visitors a day, the minutes ticked by as the grand, salmon-colored building remained shut. A couple arrived. After 15 minutes, the doors swung open to reveal a guard visibly surprised to see three waiting guests.

Campbell’s visit had particular urgency. An American archaeologist with the British School at Rome, he would be leaving Italy in just weeks for a new job in the UK. So as many pent-up Neapolitans emerged from lockdown to seek beaches and fresh air, he returned indoors for some rare alone time with the reopened museum’s treasures.

Campbell headed straight to the museum’s Farnese Collection, considered one of the finest collections of Greco-Roman statuary in the world. “Just having the opportunity to be alone in the room with the statues and really take them in was quite special,” he recalls, describing the experience as “haunting.”

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In a quiet Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, home to Michaelangelo's David, the shadow of Gianbologna's 16th-century sculpture Rape of the Sabine Women casts a shadow into a gallery of religious works, including Alesso Baldovinetti's The Trinity and Saints Benedetto and Giovanni Gualberto (1472) in the foreground.

Europe’s museums are re-opening, but slowly, with socially-distant gallery experiences, temperature checks, and restricted numbers of attendees. Some museums are now reporting visitor rates roughly a quarter of what once was normal. As a visitor experience, having a gallery to yourself—or at least with no gaggle of selfie sticks in sight—can be a transcendent experience. Yet for museum administrators concerned with attendance, engagement, and, most importantly, safety, it remains an uncertain time. (Related: New York's art scene is digitally reinventing itself while theaters remain closed.)

Take social distancing. Depending on the size and design of a museum, keeping visitors six feet apart from each other could reduce the number of visitors to just 20 to 50 percent of the building’s maximum capacity, says Julia Pagel, secretary general of the Network of European Museum Organisations, an advocacy group representing more than 30,000 museums in Europe.

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19th-century plaster casts of ancient sculptures, once used to teach art students, line the walls of the Gipsoteca Bartolini in Florence's Galleria dell’Accademia.

For some museums—particularly smaller, privately owned institutions—that reduction in ticket revenue can pose an existential threat. According to a report from the International Council of Museums, more than a tenth of the world’s museums now say they may be forced to permanently close.

Pagel says the picture for Europe’s museums seems slightly better than the Council report’s projections, but not much. Global tourism is expected to drop between 50 and 70 percent this year, and without international tourists—63 million foreign tourists came to Italy in 2019—the Continent’s biggest cultural depositories are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a week.

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Caravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610) hangs in Naples' Galleria d’Italia.

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A first-century A.D. portrait of the Roman emperor Vespasian glowers from foreground left in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples' famed Farnese Collection.

“The pandemic is far from over,” Pagel says. “Museums are losing a lot of money, and they will keep doing so even after their reopening.”

The situation is forcing museums to figure out what success and impact look like, beyond the traditional metric of peak visitor numbers. Will the pandemic force powerful change in how museums engage with global digital audiences, for instance, or with local communities that are often estranged from the cultural destination around the corner? Is cultural enrichment something to put off until we save the world, or is it a means to save us?

What is certain is that on that June day last week, less than two months after Italy emerged from coronavirus lockdown and just weeks after the National Archaeological Museum re-opened, Peter Campbell knew he had to be early to have the Farnese Collection to himself. Because as the day went on, he says, the admirers—as always—came back.

This work was originally commissioned by Cortona On The Move, an international visual narrative festival, in partnership with Intesa Sanpaolo, for The COVID-19 Visual Project.
Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti are photographers based in Italy. Their story on the life and legacy of Leonardo da Vinci was published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.