Planet Word: Opening a Museum Mid-Pandemic
Planet Word is a new kind of museum. Founded on ideas, not on a collection of artifacts, the museum aims to bring language to life. And the way we’re doing that is through experiences and participatory exhibits. We like to call ourselves the first voice-activated museum, because many of our exhibits respond to visitors’ voices. And many of our exhibits also have touch screens to make that magic happen.
We had planned to open on May 31, 2020, but when Covid-19 started spreading, we suspended our exhibit installation and software integration activities in order to safeguard our vendors. By early July, we felt comfortable remobilizing them and working toward a new opening date of October 22. We used the intervening weeks to rethink all our visitor experiences and learn more about the disease and how it spreads.
Of course, we’re all still learning about this unpredictable virus, and some of the worries we had early on were probably overblown, but we knew that implementing as many safety precautions as possible would be reassuring to visitors whatever the science turned out to be.
So what did this mean? First of all, we had to calculate how many visitors we could accommodate safely. The District of Columbia issued regulations based on total square feet of a space, so we looked at each of our 10 galleries and calculated how many people could occupy that space. Then we added that up and arrived at a total number. Of course, this calculation didn’t take into account the size of our many spacious, non-gallery areas, so it was very conservative to begin with. This led to our decision to limit the number of visitors to 35 per hour for just 3 days per week – now we knew the museum galleries could easily accommodate that number and would allow us to maintain social distancing, especially in some of our small galleries.
We assigned staff members to monitor galleries to ensure safe visitor flow. And we posted signage to direct visitors to ascend one flight of stairs and descend via another. They entered the museum through one set of exterior doors and exited through the building’s original historic doors onto a different street, to avoid two-way visitor traffic. Although that entrance and exit route wasn’t originally intended, it did have the unanticipated benefit of leading visitors past murals explaining the historic origins of the building (built in 1869 by famed architect Adolf Cluss). Even though the museum also has two new elevators, we encouraged walking up the wide, beautiful staircases, and limited elevator use to one household unit at a time.
But we began our efforts to monitor social distancing even before visitors stepped foot in the museum. We required them to preregister on our website (www.planetwordmuseum.org) for a timeslot and then line up in our exterior courtyard at 6-feet intervals. Everyone was required to wear a mask, and no one ever objected to that rule. Inside, they were greeted by a visitor service staff member who explained the social distancing rules and offered everyone a stylus to use on the touch screens. At the end of their visit, they could return the stylus or keep it as a souvenir.
We also set up hand sanitizer stations throughout the galleries and offered disposable gloves in areas where visitors were touching books. For exhibits requiring writing, we supplied a lot of pencils that visitors could keep. In the case of exhibits requiring headphones, we rewired them to include jacks so visitors could listen through their own headsets or request a disposable set.
But our voice-activated exhibits didn’t need any alteration. Visitors could speak in their natural voices (even through a mask, we discovered) and respond to questions posed by the exhibit narrators. The voice-recognition technology needed to be “trained” as to the words likely to be heard, but in general it was a great technology for a Covid world: Microphones were hidden inside exhibitry or located high above visitors. These voice-activated exhibits were located at a distance from each other (so the speakers wouldn’t pick up stray conversation from nearby visitors by mistake) and were easily enjoyed as a one-person experience, so they didn’t encourage groups to gather. And several of our experiences are also motion-activated, so that didn’t require any unnecessary touching – just a jiggle or a jog!
We established a regular cleaning rotation, so visitors saw screens and other surfaces throughout the galleries being disinfected frequently. Similarly, we increased the number of cleaning staff hours, so restrooms and all other common areas were cleaned regularly, and drinking fountains were turned off.
Because all the HVAC systems in the restored building were brand new and built to today’s high air-filtration standards, we knew the air circulation in the galleries was more than adequate, especially with the volumes of air that could be circulated through our high-ceilinged galleries. And now we know that airborne transmission of the virus is most likely, so coupled with that new infrastructure, our efforts to enforce social distancing, require masks, and limit the number of people inside the museum were the most important measures we took.
I hope this description leaves you feeling comfortable with all the precautions we’ve taken to ensure visitors’ health and safety, and curious about all these experiences that await you! Although we are closed for the time being, just as soon as local authorities say the word, we will open the doors and welcome you to Planet Word and an out-of-this world encounter with words and language. In the meantime, we’ve ramped up our virtual offerings as you can see on our website, and we hope you’ll take advantage of those opportunities to experience words and language beyond our walls.