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The joy and uneasiness of an empty museum

With tourists nowhere to be found, this is the eerie new reality of New York’s cultural institutions.

The Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, pictured with just one visitor. The eerie emptiness has made museums’ vulnerability especially obvious.
Haruka Sakaguchi for Vox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Part of The Museums Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

My fourth-grade teacher read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to my class during lunch, a few pages at a time, every day for a couple months. It made us dream of spending the night alone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. No guards, no parents, just us kids and the coats of armor and the mummies and the statues, having the run of the place.

In E.L. Konigsburg’s 1967 novel, 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid and her younger brother Jamie run away from their suburban Connecticut home and hide out at the Met in search of an adventure. They meet a crotchety but kind (and very rich) old woman, Mrs. Frankweiler, who loves art and teaches them why it matters.

I think of Claudia and Jamie every time I go to the Met. This year, though, I didn’t have the chance until fall arrived and the weather started to turn nippy again. The museum shut down in mid-March, along with every other cultural institution in New York City. At the time, no one knew whether the coronavirus would keep those doors closed for two weeks or two months. We just knew it didn’t seem safe for anyone to be there.

In the end, the Met closed for just shy of six months. The Temple of Dendur perched majestically in its cavernous room, the wall of slanted windows letting in more sunlight as the days grew longer, then less when they grew shorter again. Monet’s landscapes and Degas’s ballerinas and 9th-century flasks and illuminated Qur’an manuscripts and Tiffany windows and tapestries and portraits of the first Emperor Constantine sat waiting, some of them assuming the state of repose in which they’d lain for millennia before they were excavated and brought to the Met.

The sandstone Temple of Dendur at the Met.
Exactly no one in Haegue Yang’s “Handles” exhibit in the second floor atrium at the MoMa.

About 30 blocks down Fifth Avenue, the Museum of Modern Art also closed its doors, just a few months after reopening in the wake of an expansive remodel. The MoMA is always buzzing full of tourists who come to see the Lichtensteins and the Picassos and check a sight off the list. In the remodel, the museum added films to its permanent collection, positioning them side by side with paintings and photographs and sketches and sculptures to tell the story of modern art. But for six months the new screens stayed dark. The statues by Henri Matisse and Louise Bourgeois and Auguste Rodin in the sculpture garden — the part of the museum that was always free to all visitors, and thus always bustling — stood in their now-quiet courtyard.

The same quiet settled in all over the world. The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum remained enclosed in its glass case, covered in formerly dead languages that were now briefly dead again, with nobody there to read them. Presidential portraits lined the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, silently smiling or glowering only at one another. Not every museum closed in every country, of course. But around the globe, the treasures of human culture rested.

In New York, the museums reopened at the end of August. In October, I lined up outside the Met at the entrance designated for members; the general public would come in on the other side of the famous steps. I wanted to see what it felt like inside, whether the humming electricity of a visit to some of the world’s most august works of art would still be there after such a seismic — yet eerily still — disruption.

I was the only person below retirement age in the line, probably because it was 10 in the morning on a Monday and the tourists who might usually crowd the Met’s galleries while everyone else is at work were no longer in town. I stood on a sticker marking the proper distance from the person ahead of me. Everyone moved from one sticker to the next, like frogs slowly hopping between lily pads, waiting their turn to enter.

The ticketing area, complete with social distancing markers, at the Met. The lines that once stretched through the hall and out the door are no more.

It didn’t take long to get in, and that felt unusual in its own right. The narrator of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid’s story — Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself, writing a letter to her financial manager — dryly remarks that “if you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have had the same thought. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it.” For decades, tourists visiting the Met have joined that line, which usually trails all the way down the famous stairs and onto Fifth Avenue, snaking past the hot-dog vendors and the school buses dropping off students for field trips.

Anyone who’s in New York right now knows it’s far from a ghost town, but the lines at the Met on the morning I visited were no longer evidence of Mrs. Frankweiler’s axiom. They were, instead, the natural outgrowth of a new admissions process. Wait on your socially distanced lily pad until the masked man at the door beckons. Stand still while he points a thermometer gun at your head and nods, a silent pronouncement that you are not feverish. Walk through a metal detector and proceed to a room with winding, marked-out pathways signaling the direction of the line. Approach the plexiglass-encased ticketing desk, talk to the masked-and-goggled attendant, and get your ticket. Head up the stairs. Keep your mask on.

A picture appeared on the Met’s Instagram the day the museum reopened. A man wearing a crimson cloth mask, walking through the doors, leans back in awe, arms spread wide, pure joy visible on the upper half of his face. For locals, the Met is not a box to tick off a bucket list, or a location on Gossip Girl. It is a personal space for inspiration. It is a place to meet a friend or to be alone in a crowd. We visit the Met to see some work of art we’ve never seen or one we’ve seen a thousand times before. Coming back is returning home.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened at the end of August after being closed to the public since March. Visitors rejoiced.
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

I heard the heels of my boots clacking on the floor as I passed a couple quietly murmuring to each other, voices more muffled than usual because of their masks. In the Egyptian art wing, the sarcophagi and mummies and artifacts sat in their usual places, some of which I could examine up close. Others I could only glimpse. Many side rooms were blocked off by ropes and signs that read “This room temporarily closed,” as if areas without space for social distancing were just being cleaned instead of made unsafe by a plague.

Soon enough, I found myself nearly alone before the Temple of Dendur, just me, the attendant, and the sandstone temple with its columns, guarded by a rectangular arch. It was so quiet you could have heard a reed blowing in the wind, if there were reeds or wind in the room. I walked toward the structure and up to its platform, where a sign informed me that the Temple, too, was closed. I could see an artifact shimmering inside, lit up, like a treasure someone in a movie is supposed to make off with by the end of the first act.

I walked, heels clacking, to the other side of the platform. “It’s quiet in here,” I said to the attendant, catching myself before I said, “Quiet as a tomb.”

He nodded. “It’s like this now,” he said through his mask.

Sculptures of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut at the Met. The Egyptian galleries are among the most visited corridors of the museum.

Now is the present, and the foreseeable future. At the Met and the MoMA, and many other museums across the country, timed tickets are required; visitors are strongly encouraged to book in advance. Once you’re in, you can stay as long as you want, but the entry times are staggered to ensure the museums never exceed 25 percent capacity, the limit currently mandated by the state. In a typical year, about 7 million people pass through the Met’s three locations (including the Cloisters and the Met Breuer). More than two-thirds are from outside New York City and its suburbs, and a third are from outside the US. MoMA’s attendance hovers around 3 million; 60 percent of its visitors are from outside the US, and typically only 15 percent are from the greater New York region. The Met and the MoMA are the two most-visited museums in the city, so an enormous amount of their institutional clout comes from out of town.

Even a quarter of those figures is still a lot of people. But you can feel the echoing emptiness nonetheless. There are no school groups, no crowds of children excitedly chattering. And, most noticeably, there are no tourists.

No tourists because the pandemic has effectively grounded the world, and even those who can easily cross borders aren’t quite so eager to visit a country with an uncontrolled outbreak. Statistically, despite a slight uptick in positive cases, New York City is still one of the safest urban places in the US right now, following its frightening spring spike. But while you can spot out-of-towners on the street, for right now New York belongs almost entirely to New Yorkers.

That goes for our museums, too. Some of them don’t depend on tourists on the same scale as the Met or the MoMA. On most days, in normal times, you can walk right into the Frick to see the Vermeers or swing by the Museum of the Moving Image to hang out with the Muppets without waiting around for very long. But pushing through the line to see “The Starry Night” at the MoMA, or getting through the Impressionist galleries at the Met, is almost always a challenge. In the past it required boldness, some well-placed shoulders, and the kind of flexible approach to personal space honed best by years of riding the subway.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” at MoMa.
“MAY 20, 1967” by On Kawara in Gallery 415 at MoMa.

Without tourists and at reduced capacity, the museums feel vast, like empty palaces. You can meander through an entire grand hall without seeing anyone. At the Met, I stood alone in a room full of Japanese suits of armor, slowly spinning myself around to see everything. I sauntered through the Impressionists and doubled back again with ease. I walked alone through a two-floor exhibit of enormous abstract paintings on the upper level of the contemporary wing, while Chuck Close’s portrait of artist Lucas Samaras glowered at me from the gallery a level below, unobstructed by any observers.

I went up to the roof, which is typically thronged with people, and emerged from my solo elevator ride to find just four other visitors looking out to the gray day in Central Park. A sizable section of the European paintings wing, one of those bread-and-butter stops for tourists, was closed off completely; the sign cited skylight renovations that will last until December, which makes sense. This is the time to do it.

At the MoMA, too, whole wings of the museum were shut off to visitors as new shows were installed. I took the elevator to the fifth floor’s “The Starry Night.” The painting is the source of a million college dorm-room posters, and the space in front of it is usually jammed with tourists, but I was able to walk right up to it, alone, and casually snap a photo. Wandering past Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting “New York Movie,” with its blond movie-theater attendant leaning alone against the wall of a cinema, I felt new pangs. In New York, the movie theaters remain dark. The beloved screens in the MoMA’s lower level stay silent and shuttered too.

The oval-shaped room on the MoMA’s fifth floor that houses the museum’s extraordinary collection of Monet’s “Water Lilies” was closed — no surprise, since the tourists who normally mob it aren’t around right now. The cafe was closed, too, and the gift shop was empty. I walked into a special exhibition — Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s “Cinematic Illumination” — and had the whole thing to myself. I watched the 360-degree show comprised of music and images on some of the only big screens I’ve seen since March.

Every time I passed a fellow museumgoer, I nodded, and they nodded back. We were happy to be there, of course. But we also resembled ghosts or survivors of an apocalypse, wearing masks around our faces, stepping tentatively, keeping our distance from one another.

For the fictional Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, the appeal of an empty museum was the feeling of getting away with something. They knew that when the museum reopened in the morning, the place they’d had all to themselves would fill up again. They followed the school groups and eluded the guards and played a game that made them feel like they owned the place. It was fun because it was crowded.

For real museumgoers in this surreal moment, it is different. I don’t know what it feels like at the Louvre or the Hermitage right now, or in the Vatican museums, or in the museums of Taipei, Cape Town, Cairo, São Paulo, Tokyo, London, Nairobi, Beijing, Vienna, or Marrakesh. In those places I’d be a tourist. I’d be so happy to be there, to be anywhere.

An empty coat check at the Met.
And pandemic-era signage in the Great Hall.

Here in New York, it’s a mixed bag. During my homecoming, I relished the emptiness — but I also missed the genial, silent companionship of strangers. I’ve stopped by the MoMA innumerable times when I had an hour to kill before a movie screening, or when I wanted to see a particular painting again. Now I have to plan ahead, although I know my experience will be uninterrupted by people flying by and frenetically snapping images with their phones or being scolded for standing too close to the art.

But I am worried. In movies, empty museums often symbolize a world in which catastrophe has occurred. The streets of New York feel pretty normal, aside from the masks, but the museums faintly recall the post-apocalyptic setting of I Am Legend. The art that makes life in New York glow is going unseen. Staff members are being exposed every day to visitors who might be carriers. And if it stays this way for too long, some of these museums will struggle to stay open. It makes the glorious quietness, the ease of moving about the galleries, feel like a warning. And it makes it hard to imagine floods of visitors ever returning.

Claudia Kincaid ran away from home because she felt bored and unnoticed. She went home when she felt changed by her adventure at the Met, and it was the art that changed her. I thought of Claudia as I poked around the galleries by myself, with only the attendants, my clacking heels, and some of the world’s greatest works of art to keep me company. And I became even more certain of one thing: That sense of absence, tourist or local, is what will make us appreciate all the more what now sits mostly in silence, waiting for our return.

Just one person in the 19th and early 20th century European paintings and sculpture galleries at the Met.

Alissa Wilkinson is Vox’s film critic and an associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in Manhattan. She’s been writing about film and culture since 2006.

Haruka Sakaguchi is a Japanese independent photographer currently based in Brooklyn, New York.

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