Museums and COVID Risk

Terry Winters, Factors of Increase, 1988. The Broad Collection. (c) Terry Winters
Berlin's museums have reopened, and DIA Beacon has plans to do so. These moves have renewed debate about how much COVID-19 risk museum visits pose and what might be done to minimize it. In recent interviews LACMA's Michael Govan and MoMA's Glenn Lowry have spoken of instituting timed tickets and eliminating gallery texts and object labels at their post-lockdown institutions. Lowry even proposes that overly popular objects might be taken off view "because if we show it, it will force people to come and aggregate in uncomfortable ways." That would apparently mean a MoMA without Starry Night or Les Demoiselles.

How much COVID risk does a museum visit pose? The first thing to say is that there are no hard statistics. Essentially all the world's museums closed early in the pandemic. All beliefs about risk are conjecture, based at best on uncertain and quickly evolving science.

In theory a single virus can cause a deadly infection. In practice the body's immune system almost always neutralizes the viruses it encounters. It takes hundreds or thousands of live virus particles to stand a substantial chance of overwhelming the immune system and launching an infection. However, a tiny droplet, expelled by a cough, can contain millions of viruses. Larger droplets may land on a metal or plastic surface where they may remain a hazard for days. Smaller droplets may linger in the air and travel on imperceptible drafts. A just-published study implicated "speech droplets" of asymptomatic persons as a major carrier of COVID-19. It offered evidence that merely talking loudly can spray droplets that persist in the air for 8 to 14 minutes.

This fits in with the observed pattern: The virus is most efficiently transmitted when people are indoors, in close quarters, speaking and breathing the same air (or touching the same things) for hours. Several well-studied cases drive current thinking on those points.

One is the church choir in Mount Vernon, Washington. The singers followed what they thought were prudent social distancing-measures for a 2-1/2 hour practice. Yet a single asymptomatic carrier infected most of the 60 choir members. Forty-five of the 60 developed symptoms, and two died.

Singing expels viral particles from the lungs. The choir practice spread the virus even though the members stood apart and avoided sharing sheet music.
Floorplan of Seoul call center with seats of infected workers in blue
Another case involves a Seoul call center. A single employee apparently infected many workmates on the same floor of a tall building. They were mainly on that employee's half of the floor. There is no evidence the employee infected anyone on the building's other floors, despite the fact that all used the same elevator. The employees were speaking on the phone throughout the workday, in extreme proximity.

University of Massachusetts biologist Erin Bromage summarizes the emerging consensus this way.

Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time

It's not just a matter of being exposed to the virus but how long you're exposed. Speaking, singing, and breathing heavily (gyms, joggers) increases the exposure.

Accept these premises, and museums appear to have several advantages over other cultural facilities. Museum visitors spend most of their time standing up (rather than seated, holding an armrest). They don't touch the art. Most don't speak much, and they don't spend too much time in one place.
Pre-shutdown weekend crowds for "Michelangelo: Mind of the Master" at the Getty Center
At almost any L.A. museum, the majority of galleries are thinly attended save for a few peak hours on weekends (and maybe not even then). Timed tickets, which are part of most tentative plans to reopen museums, can reduce the visitors to any rate deemed safe. The challenge is to avoid clusters around popular objects.

One area of concern might be docent tours. The group travels together with a continuously speaking docent and may spend an hour in each other's proximity. This could pose risks beyond that of briefly passing a hundred strangers.

My reading of the current state of knowledge: Assuming masks and social distancing, museums probably pose more risk than a trip to the park, but less than libraries, theaters, or concert halls.

It's museum guards and visitor associates who bear more cumulative risk than the visitors. That needs to be factored into any decision to re-open.


Anonymous said…
One of the first visitors to a reopened Berlin art museum "expressed relief about seeing art in person after months of being mostly indoors. But, she added, she felt restricted by the new regulations. 'You can’t relax when you look at the images, you can’t breathe,' she said. 'It’s not the same as before.'”
Anonymous said…
No interest in visiting an art museum in the near future.
Anonymous said…
Unknown said…
A clarification in response to the Anonymous who has "no interest in visiting an art museum in the near future": The Museum of Jurassic Technology is not an "art museum" and in fact it is not even a real museum. It's a place of imagination, creativity, and invention. A space filled with wondrous artifacts that can inspire the most literal hard-core rationalist as well as the never-satisfied irrationalist. It is a magic place that young and old can enjoy while being lifted from the everyday and transported into a fifth dimension that suddenly appears more real the the real world, and more fantastic than a fairy tale. To find out what this non-museum-museum is for you, you have to enter it. You will never forget it.
A. Duranti, Los Angeles
Anonymous said…
Sure, Jan.
Anonymous said…
Jurassic non-sequitur.
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