Felicity Long
Felicity Long

I remember the first time I saw Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." I was a college student living in Paris, and of course, visiting the famous Louvre was high on my to-do list. What I remember most from the experience was the frustration of trying to get a glimpse of the iconic painting around the heads of hordes of tourists jostling for the same view.

I feel pretty safe predicting that that type of museum overcrowding is a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future.

But what will the museum experience of the future look like, especially in Europe, where art is fully integrated into the local culture?

We're about to find out, because many of the Continent's most famous venues reopened in time for International Museum Day, which -- in case you missed it -- was May 18.

In Austria, for example, museums opened May 15, according to Michael Gigl, region manager USA & Australia for the Austrian Tourist Office, but "it is up to management's discretion if they chose to do so." 

"Museums have to calculate the maximum number of visitors to allow for a minimum of 108 square feet of space per visitor," he said, adding that social distancing rules require a minimum of three feet separation between visitors and face masks -- bring your own -- are strictly required.

Museums that have opened in Vienna include the Albertina, the Leopold Museum and the KHM Museum of Fine Arts. Belvedere Palace is set to open July 1.

In Salzburg, openings include the DomQuartier, Hohensalzburg Fortress, Hellbrunn Palace and trick fountains and Mozart's Birthplace.

In Brussels, a number of museums also opened in mid-May, according to Patrick Bontinck, CEO of Visit Brussels. They include the family-favorite Mini-Europe, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and one of Belgium's top cultural attractions, the Rene Magritte Museum.  

Depending on the museum, new measures include buying tickets in advance and regulated opening timetables, Bontinck said.

"These are the first signs of a progressive return of tourist and cultural activity in Brussels," he said. "There is still a long way to go."

Some of the most famous museums in the world are located in Italy, and Rome's Vatican Museums, normally overflowing with bustling crowds, are among those that have flung open their doors after months of closure. The Vatican Museums and the Colosseum reopened June 1, with advance reservations required, temperature checks at the entrance and plenty of newfound breathing room. 

In Florence, the Uffizi Gallery reopened the first week of June with similar strictures, as has the Galleria dell'Accademia, where museum-goers will be treated to the sight of a newly cleaned Michelangelo's David. Visitors to the newly reopened Duomo in Florence are being outfitted is with necklaces that vibrate when they get too close to one another.

In Spain, the eye-popping Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which was shuttered March 14, reopened June 1 with such safety measures as staggered opening times, temperature checks at the entrance and an app to replace audio guides.

Portugal opened many of its museums nationwide on May 18, including the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, but don't expect a guided tour. Visitors must wear masks and observe social distancing, and to reinforce the standards, the museum website offers cartoons explaining the new rules.

Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum opened June 1 with new safety protocols, as did the Anne Frank House, which allows visitors to enter with only one companion.

In Denmark, museums reopened June 8 with similar measures, and Norway's Munch Museum will reopen in Oslo on June 15, with limited capacity.

Swiss museums opened May 11, and one blockbuster show that should be around long enough for Americans to enjoy once international borders open is the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen near Basel. The exhibition will run through July 26.

By contrast, France is taking a more cautious approach to opening its most iconic museums, including the Louvre -- the home of the "Mona Lisa" that I had so much trouble seeing among the crowds in my youth. The museum is set to reopen July 7, and visitors will need to book a time slot online and must wear a mask.

Meanwhile, some smaller French museums and cultural venues already reopened, including the Giacometti Institute, which reopened May 15, with online advance ticket purchase required.

Of course, while all this is good news for European museum-goers -- many inter-European borders will reopen June 15 -- art lovers in the U.S. will have to wait a little longer for their turn.


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