The giant astronaut with its glass helmet is still there, greeting visitors returning to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. The familiar figure is one of the few unchanged elements in the three-story, 370,000-square-foot museum along the Mississippi River that had to quickly transform for the pandemic era.
After being shuttered for nearly six months, the museum will do a phased reopening for members Aug. 21-23 and 28-30, and will welcome the public Sept. 4. Visitors must reserve touchless tickets. The museum reopens at 25% capacity, or around 250 people.
The museum’s staff went through an intensive re-evaluation of every object on display, removing anything that was porous or could not withstand rigorous cleaning, such as books and cloth, and there are no more chairs for lounging.
The Science Museum has lost $10 million in revenue since closing due to the pandemic and faces a projected $20 million revenue loss in its fiscal year. But it’s determined to make a comeback, said CEO Alison Brown. Reopening is a part of that, as about a third of its revenue typically comes from visitors. Brown also expects to dip into the museum’s $40 million endowment, and is using the $4.6 million PPP loan it received to cover staffing costs as it reopens. The museum used furloughs and layoffs to drastically reduce staff earlier this year.
“We’ve brought 180 employees back in these past few weeks,” said Brown. “They are coming back to work, learning the new safety protocols, learning how we will run the museum.”
The pandemic changed the museum layout as well. In total, 30 exhibits were removed, 59 were changed in order to withstand frequent cleaning, and 159 were repositioned to fit social distancing requirements. The museum added 12 cases of natural history specimens.
A couple of major things changed at the Collector’s Corner on the ground-level floor, where visitors can bring specimens like rocks, fossils, skulls, dead insects and shells and trade them in for “points” that buy them sparkly gems.
“After we do a transaction, we’re going to sanitize the counter just like the supermarkets do,” said programs gallery coordinator Roger Benepe, who wore a mask with T-rex teeth on it. The books in the Collector’s Corner had to go, but that freed up space for a huge bowhead whale skull encased in glass. Whales were once hunted almost to extinction for their oil. The specimen gets a new life here in its prominent location.
“We have so much stuff in storage, we could’ve filled this entire space,” said Benepe. “We’ve got 1.7 million items in the vault.”
With more specimens, especially the whale skull, Benepe thinks that now the museum “has a natural-history museum feel to it.”
Nearby, custodian Matthew Pitkin vigorously scrubbed the front of a glass case containing fossils. He used to work the night shift in the parking ramp, but now he’s on daytime custodial duty.
“I’m always hittin’ that,” he said, pointing to the river pilot simulator, a video game with handles and levers for steering a ship down a virtual river.
People used to be able to go out onto a patio overlooking the real river and inspect the life-size tow boat, but in COVID times the exhibit has been closed because it’s impossible to maintain distance out there.
The Science Live Theater on the lowest-level floor had to go, too. The space where audience members used to sit is now filled with dinosaur skeletons.
Brown is contemplating how actors might be able to perform outside the theater, in more experimental ways.
“Maybe when things get settled down, we hire them and do something outside in our front entrance area — before it gets too cold,” she said. “Or, we are Minnesotans, we can do things in the cold!”
Some exhibits remain and get a twist reflecting the times. “The Sneezing Girl,” for example, demonstrates the science of a sneeze, spewing out 5,000 water droplets. Two pieces of tape on the floor show how far a sneeze goes without a mask, about 12 feet, and with a mask, about one foot.
Then there’s the collection of questionable medical devices, which Brown finds apropos for the times.
“Think about how we were fooled previously and are being fooled again during this time, about what caused COVID-19 and how to cure it,” she said. “We realize that we have to really rely on scientists to get through this pandemic safely.”
For the Sept. 4 grand reopening, the museum will also have a timely traveling exhibition called “The Science Behind the News: COVID,” which comes from the New York Hall of Science. Details about the exhibition, much like a COVID-19 vaccine, are still evolving.
“Science isn’t like, ‘Oh, we have the answer now’ — like it’s one and done,” Brown said. “It’s a process.”