On our way home from a little weekend trip to northern Québec we decide to take a little detour to pass through Québec City to see the exhibition Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. I had hoped to write a little review of this exhibition but instead I’m going to share my experience of visiting a blockbuster exhibition in the time of Covid-19.
The exhibition originally opened in the winter at the art museum in Québec but was forced to close due to the pandemic just a couple months after opening. The museum was able to extend the exhibition when the reopened at the end of June and the exhibition ran until September 7th, 2020. Museums have since closed again in Quebec City due to an increase in Covid-19 cases in and around Quebec City, as well as Montreal.
We visited on a Monday in the early afternoon thinking it wouldn’t be too busy even though August in Québec City is usually high tourist season. However, with the pandemic no cruise ships are visiting the city and the border is closed so there were way less tourists then usual. Walking around the old part of the city was great with hardly any large crowds and no tour groups. We figured the museum would be easy to visit with time tickets and capacity capped. Unfortunately the experience was not great in the exhibition even with limited visitors and time ticketed entry.
Getting into the museum and getting our wristband to enter the exhibition was easy but as soon as we got to the door to enter the exhibition we encountered a line and long wait to get in. On the floor throughout the exhibition there were very clear markers about what direction to follow and where to stand sometimes. I felt this to be redundant since exhibition are usually already designed with a clear path in mind with very few option to deviate. This, along with some bottleneck areas resulted in congestion within the exhibition and crowds forming while waiting to get in front of the next artwork. Right from the beginning we started being surrounded by people and unable to move forward away from them since there were people in front taking forever to move along while more people filed into the exhibition. The guards in the exhibition also didn’t want people to cut ahead and deviate from the path so you were just stuck there waiting to move and unable to get away from people. At a certain point we gave up and just went around people to get past congested areas even though the guards got annoyed at us. The only thing that made me feel a little better about the whole situation was that everyone was wearing a mask the correct way with it covering their nose and mouth.
I was very excited to see this exhibition as a big fan of Frida Kahlo and I also wanted to learn more about Mexican modernism. The exhibition had some great photographs of Kahlo and Rivera as well as photographs from important Mexican artists. I wish I could have enjoyed the experience more and taken in more of the exhibition but I ended up missing sections and just feeling very uncomfortable most of the time and annoyed at other people in the exhibition for causing congestion and not being aware of the problems they were causing. I also think the directional arrows made it more difficult since it really restricted the flow in the rooms. Usually when an exhibition is full I’ll just move along behind people and look at the artworks from a distance and skip reading the text panels but with the direction arrows I was stuck on the path and unable to move around people. And as much as I understand the need for the museum to allow are many people as possible to view the exhibition I feel as though it should be limited even further and that maybe by setting the entry times to every quarter hour instead of half hour it could help to manage the flow of people.
Museums and cultural institutions will have many challenges with the pandemic with how to manage crowds safely. Typically when visiting a museum the galleries with the permanent collection are pretty empty and you would have no issue trying to socially distance (with the exhibition of rooms with well known artworks in certain high profile galleries in cities like New York, London and Paris). Blockbuster exhibitions pose a real challenge though since they draw the largest crowds, often cost a lot of money to put on and usually end up accounting for a large portion of the institution’s revenue for the year. Museums rely on blockbuster exhibitions to draw in crowds and bring in revenue but what happens when you can’t pack in as many people because of a global pandemic? I wonder if museums will continue to put on the same expensive blockbuster exhibition when they know it will be at a loss when they can’t allow the same number of visitors?
Museums and cultural institutions are being hit hard by the pandemic like a lot of industries. Often tickets sales (especially from blockbusters), sales from gift shops, etc. account for a substantial portion of a museum’s operating budget, sometimes up to 50%. With museums now having to limit visitors and costly exhibition schedules being upended and disrupted by the pandemic and unexpected closures I’m feeling pretty worried about the fate of museums and their ability to survive. I personally don’t know if I’ll feel comfortable visiting a major blockbuster exhibition again anytime soon even with the new safety measures in place.