Denmark’s museums were mostly closed by 14 March, when prime minister Mette Frederiksen shut the country’s borders. A season later, doors were tentatively reopened – only after being thoroughly de-sanitized, of course.
Medical Museion, where I am director, welcomed its first ‘post-corona’ visitor on 9 June. By and large, Danes would seem to have had a much lighter Covid-19-crisis than Brits. And the process of unlocking Danish society is at least a month ahead of England’s stumbling plans.
So, my arrival back in Copenhagen recently has provided a sneak peek into a new normal, where most of the museum sector is, shakily, back on its feet. Make no mistake, many institutions are contemplating drastic financial measures.
Den Gamle By, a private collection in Aarhus, has faced possible bankruptcy. In Copenhagen, the popular Designmuseum Danmark decided to bring forward a planned renovation project, and will remain dark until early 2022. It relies heavily on revenue from foreign tourists, and will use the extended closure to rethink its operating model.
With many museum employees working from home, small but highly motivated teams prepared for reopenings. Adopting measures well practiced across essential services, galleries have introduced signage in various styles to encourage one-metre distancing, hand-washing and other public health precautions.
All have installed multiple sanitising stations and pre-booked timeslots to manage visitor flow are standard. Many venues are making more of their exterior spaces. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art has installed three new external artworks.
On the balmy day I visited, many more visitors were outdoors in their sculpture park than inside. At Medical Museion, our courtyard now boasts a marque and extra toilet facilities – northern Europe’s largest music festival, down the road in Roskilde, had quite a few spare this year.
As a university museum, we have also found ourselves working between different reopening timetables stipulated for public culture and tertiary education. Interestingly, the former preceded the latter.
And visitors have been returning, but hardly in droves. At one national museum, the first brave returnee was only spotted a half hour after doors had been reopened with high expectations.
The tourist organisation Wonderful Copenhagen has pivoted its mostly-digital marketing efforts from international to Danish tourists, and a government-backed summer initiative has enabled entrance charges (routine and costly in Denmark) to be halved, with the public purse matching the earned income. Unsurprisingly, visitor numbers are down significantly, with shortfalls measured as percentages of last year’s figures.
Louisiana, one of Denmark’s most visited tourist hot-spots, has fared better than many, welcoming just under 50% compared with 2019. Medical Museion’s 25% is probably closer to the average. Those that do come in seem unfearful, relaxed about adopting new habits.
Many museums have grasped this as an opportunity to respond with innovation, often shifting emphasis from the obsession with quantity to a greater focus on personal experiences. Copenhagen’s Workers Museum has developed a new school-tour based in the city instead of the museum.
As an institution directly concerned with public health, Medical Museion is giving a lot of thought to how historical precedents can enable visitors to reflect rather differently on the events that have shaped their recent lives.
Like many collecting institutions, we are wading through a huge amount of material, trying to decide what acquisitions might best furnish a lively, less-expected view of these extraordinary events, with a longer shelf life.
We plan to open our Collecting-Covid exhibition (provisional title) on the first anniversary of Denmark’s lockdown, when we pray that much of the subject will feel safely behind us.
Ken Arnold is the director of Medical Museion and CBMR (University of Copenhagen). Research by Ane Signe Green and Bente Pedersen