On a normal day at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, giddy children line up to get a chance to be enclosed in a compact capsule capable of blasting off into space or to feel the stomach-turning lurch of operating a fighter jet.
Nowadays, just the idea of their children in such touchy-feely spaces is enough to evoke a good deal of cringing by parents: the joysticks, the VR goggles, the seatbelts — all shared by dozens of tourists who have passed through.
So in the second week of March, one day before the museum itself closed because of coronavirus, its leaders shut down one of the institution’s most popular — and germ-covered — attractions: flight simulators and virtual-reality machines that mimic the sensation of being a fighter pilot or astronaut.
“I’m personally very reluctant to touch things in public right now,” said Ellen Stofan, the director of the Air and Space Museum. “And if we can’t find a way to do it safely, we’re not going to do it at all.”
Such is the dilemma these days for many museums across the country, particularly science and children’s museums, for whom the ethos for decades has been to encourage visitors not only to look, but to touch. All sorts of exhibits were installed and designed to provide people the opportunity to manipulate touch screens or press buttons to help them learn. Research has shown that hands-on activities, guided by a parent or museum staffer, are very effective teaching tools for children.
Now, as many of these institutions anticipate reopening, they must face the question of what to do with what had been integral parts of their museum experience.
The solutions range from blocking off some hands-on exhibits to creating hygienic ways to touch without risk.
So visitors, for example, won’t be able to test their risk tolerance at one exhibit at the International Spy Museum in Washington, by inserting their hand into an opaque box without knowing what’s inside. (Spoiler alert: It may feel as though something is crawling on you.)
“Clearly we’re not going to open an exhibit where you stick your hand in something,” said Jackie Eyl, the museum’s youth education director.
But visitors will be able activate touch screens and press buttons elsewhere, the museum said. It has bought disposable styluses that visitors can use in place of their hands, a low-cost solution that has caught on among museums of all kinds.
Other institutions are looking into antiviral coatings that can be applied to the screens or thinking up other outside-the-box solutions to avoid the need for touching.
“If we can’t be hands-on, can we be feet-on?” Ms. Eyl asked.
The unfortunate news at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is that, for the near term anyway, it will have to close a very popular part of its permanent “Paleo Play Zone” exhibit, which opened in 2019. In normal times, children use miniature paleontological tools to find reproduced fossils in the sand of a “dig pit.” But it is impractical to clean the tools and the sand between visitors at the fake excavation site.
The New-York Historical Society invested heavily in touch-screen stations during a $80 million renovation to its building that was completed in 2011, and they spent even more on that technology in 2015. Now, the museum will need to buy styluses for its visitors, and is exploring the possibility of replacing touch navigation with voice activation.
Accessibility advocates are concerned that decades of progress in introducing multi-sensory features will be rolled back if museums turn into “no touch” environments, said Janice Majewski of the Institute for Human Centered Design, which consults for museums.
Museums are looking into voice- or gesture-based tools, too, so that visitors can have interactive experiences without touching anything. But it’s a difficult time to be spending on new technology amid the slumping revenues and layoffs that have come with the pandemic.
“All of the things we have to do to keep visitors healthy and safe are going to cost money,” said Louise Mirrer, the chief executive of the historical society. “But we won’t be able to operate otherwise.”
A couple years ago, after touch screens had become popular at museums, research into the amount of bacteria that resides on these screens became a topic of conversation among museum officials, said Christy Coleman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which runs two living history museums.
There was a realization that museums needed to figure out an effective plan for keeping the screens clean. Before the pandemic, that meant wiping them down once a day. Now, museums will have to either shut these screens down or clean them much more frequently, install hand sanitizer nearby and trust their visitors to use it.
At children’s museums, the problem is complicated by the fact that many exhibits are filled with toys, props and soft, pillowy material that is difficult to clean. Many, for example, feature “grocery stores,” where young visitors push miniature shopping carts, grab plastic “food” from shelves and check out at a register.
At the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., staff members are in discussion with Wegmans to enact the same kinds of safeguards as in use at the actual stores: plexiglass around the cashiers and frequent cleaning of the register belts. (Unlike a real Wegmans, they’ll have to disinfect each item before it goes back on the shelves.) At Brooklyn Children’s Museum, they’re considering giving each family that comes in a bag of mock “groceries” for their own personal use — rubber apples and bananas that only one family will be allowed to touch.
The road ahead may seem particularly daunting for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. Founded by a Montessori educator as a response to the familiar refrain at some art museums — “don’t touch!” — the museum is facing a financial shortfall because of the pandemic and has laid off or furloughed 75 percent of its staff.
But Trish Wellenbach, the museum’s chief executive, said she is confident in the museum’s ability to keep things clean when it reopens. Unlike most institutions, children’s museums have long been seen as petri dishes for viruses, and the Please Touch Museum has had a deep-cleaning procedure in place for decades, she said. The procedure involves cleaning throughout the day, even when visitors are present and watching (a strategy that a broader set of museums are now adopting as a way to instill confidence in the institutions’ cleaning practices).
When the American Museum of Natural History opens again, visitors will no longer be able to put their hands on dinosaur bones (“You can’t Clorox those off,” the museum’s president, Ellen Futter, said). But they will be able to participate in the gesture-based pterosaur interactive, which opened in 2014: In that, visitors flap their arms as if they were wings and see the pterosaur onscreen respond in kind.
The natural history museum is looking into more investment in that kind of gesture-based technology, Ms. Futter said, in addition to mobile apps that allow visitors to navigate museums with their smartphones.
At the Museum of Science in Boston, the latest endeavor demonstrates the needs of the current moment. In March, after the museum closed indefinitely, its staff started working on a new exhibit about Covid-19. It will feature a full-sized virtual projection of a scientist that uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to answer questions about the disease.
When the museum reopens, possibly in July, visitors will be able to pose questions to the expert. And if someone asks, “How does coronavirus spread,” the virtual scientist, all voice-activated, will be in a position to respond: Not from this exhibit.