Charlotte Museums Begin to Reopen As Governor’s Order Allows

A cautious return

The dinosaurs got away but Catherine Wilson Horne is moving on. When Discovery Place Science in Uptown Charlotte closed last March, the museum had to shut down a major blockbuster exhibit on Antarctic Dinosaurs, Horne says. The crested Cryolophosaurus and its saurian companions are now on their way to the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City.

The president and CEO of Discovery Place Inc. says that she has no time for regrets. With four museums — Discovery Place Science, Nature, Kids Huntersville and Kids Rockingham — opening in mid-September after six months of COVID-19-imposed quarantine, there’s too much to do.

At the beginning of September, North Carolina entered Phase 2.5 of Gov. Cooper’s gradual reopening plan, which allowed aquariums and museums to open at 50% capacity. Across the city, museums prepared to receive visitors, emphasizing new exhibits, existing permanent installations or shows that were sadly cut short after opening in the spring. (For a detailed listing of Charlotte’s museum and gallery exhibits, check out our Fall Arts Guide)

Regardless of what was on each museum’s program, the institutions faced the same challenge: how to provide patrons with a safe path to fun, education and relief from a long quarantine.

Discovery Place Provides a Safe Atmosphere for Learning

Discovery Place kicks it off by expanding the days their four museums are open to including Sundays.

“There are a lot of families who want to do things on Sunday morning and we’re excited to bring that to bear,” says Horne.

That said, all Discovery Place facilities will close a little early each afternoon to facilitate deep cleaning and ensure safety.

“We’ll be cleaning during the day, but then we’ll be providing a deeper cleaning at night,” Horne offers.

Health and safety during the museums’ operational hours start with a temperature check at the door. Masks are also required on every mouth and nose for anyone 2 years old or older. It’s a form of early education, Horne maintains

“We know that 2-year-olds can learn to wear masks, and it [will] give them a good excuse to practice their mask wearing.”

Charlotte museums
Kids learning at Discovery Place shortly after it reopened. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

There are also increased hand sanitizing stations throughout the four facilities.

“You almost bump into one every time you turn around,” Horne says.

Patrons are required to reserve tickets either through a membership or by purchasing them online ahead of time. The process allows the museums to manage attendance and the number of people in the building. Visitors’ entries are staggered so staff can moderate the arrival process in a safer and better way.

As a final safety measure, Discovery Place has reduced occupancy at each of its museums to 25%, half of what North Carolina allows them to have in terms of total attendance.

Rock of Ages

The Charlotte Museum of History (CMoH) on Shamrock Drive has also invited the community in with a welcoming celebration that kicked off Sept. 19 with an event titled An Afternoon on the Grounds, a monthly series scheduled for one Saturday per month: Oct. 24., Nov. 21 and Dec. 5.

The self-guided, digitally enhanced tour of the museum’s eight-acre grounds encompasses the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House, the oldest surviving structure in Mecklenburg County, along with the house’s adjoining barn, kitchen and springhouse.

Charlotte museums
Lauren Wallace, education specialist at Charlotte Museum Of History, points out a date carving of 1774 on the foundation of the Hezekiah Alexander House. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Like Horne, Charlotte Museum of History president and CEO Adria Focht is focusing on safety. Masks are required for adults and children over the age of 5. Patrons are pre-registered on a per-car basis and the museum is limiting the number of cars they will admit each hour.

“With outdoor space at 50% [capacity], I think that 200 is our maximum,” Focht says, referring to the total number of patrons allowed per hour. “We’re trying to keep it at 100 people or less.”

CMoH also plans to continue virtual programming, including a weeklong Indigenous Peoples Celebration in November. 

Embracing the New

The Mint Museum Randolph and Uptown locations will be opening their doors a week after CMoH and Discovery Place, but they voice an identical concern for health and safety.

“We’re excited to be able to welcome people back,” says Mint Museum Senior Curator of American Art Jonathan Stuhlman.

Stuhlman says staff has been working hard on digital content to keep the public engaged on the museums’ website, but there’s no substitute for personal experience.

“We’ve spent a lot of time preparing to make sure people feel safe and comfortable in the museum environment,” he offers.

“Arms” from Mint Museum’s New Days /New Works exhibit. (Photo by Carolyn DeMerrit) 

Patrons are required to observe social distancing and to wear masks. In addition, hand-sanitizing stations are situated throughout the museums. Stuhlman also doubts that either facility will come close to their 50% occupancy limit.

All these precautions surround a one-of-a-kind exhibit at Mint Museum Uptown, a selection of art drawn across all the different collections and departments within the museum.

On the fourth weekend in September the museum premieres New Days/New Works, a series of interconnected exhibits that spotlight everything from African textiles to contemporary paintings.

“It’s a show that highlights recent gifts to the museum that the public hasn’t had a chance to see before,” Stuhlman offers. “I think it’s probably the first time in the 14 years that I’ve been at the museum where all the curators worked together on a giant show as opposed to each doing their own.”

Meanwhile, the Randolph location will spotlight Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and his Contemporaries. The innovative pairing of Josiah Wedgwood’s black basalt pottery with impressionistic murals by street artist Owl premiered in the spring but was cut short when COVID-19 spurred museums to shutter their doors. Now the truncated show gets to resume its interrupted run.

From Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers

In a similar vein, Levine Museum of the New South, which opened on the third week in September, premieres an exhibit that was all set to open before the city shut down for quarantine.

“Before we closed, we had been working on an exciting, new edition to our core exhibit, From Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers,” says Levine spokesperson Courtney Whiteside.

The turbocharged exhibit now boasts a new augmented-reality component that allows patrons to interact virtually with Harvey Gantt, Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, and Hugh McColl Jr., Whiteside says.

For visitors drawn to Cotton Fields or Levine’s other standing exhibits, including Brooklyn: Once a City Within a City, the museum implements a full array of safety standards.

Online ticket reservations and cashless ticketing and retail transactions are recommended for museum patrons. (Frontline workers receive a discount.) A timed ticketing system will also enable the museum to limit capacity. Face masks are required for entry, with disposable masks available at the front desk.

All guests are urged to utilize hand sanitizer upon entry and throughout the building during their visit. Visitors who feel ill are asked to leave the museum and return at a later date.

Augmented reality at the ‘Brooklyn’ #HomeCLT exhibit at Levine. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Not all of Charlotte’s museums are moving ahead immediately with reopening plans. Some of the city’s galleries have different goals and specialties and a one-size-fits-all approach to museum opening will not work for them.

Let There be Light

“Right now, our gallery walls stand naked, but that will change soon,” Kay Tuttle says. Along with her small staff, the executive director of The Light Factory was contemplating all of the gallery’s resources sitting idle and decided to open up the print lab, darkroom, and soon-to-be-completed lighting studio for limited use.

“Our friends who visit will need to wear a mask, and we are limiting the number in the gallery at one time,” Tuttle says.

She offers that the gallery is limiting its occupancy to 30% capacity. “Technically, we could open at 50%, but we are trying to ensure that our visitors stay safe.”

“I Can’t Breathe” collage in The Light Factory. (Photo by Michael Robinson)

The Light Factory is also offering its gallery space to Creating Exposure, a nonprofit that educates and mentors youth through the arts. Creating Exposure will show their work in Behind the Ink, a photography and film project that empowers a diverse group of people to tell the stories behind their tattoos. The show runs from late September to early October.

Later this fall, The Light Factory will host its annual art auction, and in November the facility will display the results of Seeing Voices: Unheard Community. In this workshop, developed in conjunction with the School for Good Citizenship, participants added words to photographs to enhance the story the image told. Tuttle says the work will be displayed both in The Light Factory’s gallery and out in the community.

“The Light Factory is committing to being more inclusive,” Tuttle says.

She vows to offer the gallery’s resources to encourage people to get to know each other, to learn from each other, and to build bonds that strengthen our community.

Artists in Residence

Another source for off-the-beaten track and iconoclastic art is the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Unlike the other museums and galleries in this survey, McColl will not be reopening in the fall.

In fact, the museum’s vice president of marketing & operations, Armando Bellmas, says the center’s target date is closer to January 2021.

“We’re not a traditional museum or gallery,” says Bellmas. “We’re more of an artist’s residency. We didn’t feel the need to open up right away to the public with an exhibition or anything like that.”

Last week, The McColl Center welcomed four new artists-in-residence. The artists, hailing from Seattle, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Miami, have already moved into their studio spaces at the center and started working.

Untitled photo overlay by McColl artist-in-residence Zalika Azim

Given the state of the pandemic, Bellmas says that McColl programs and events normally taking place face-to-face will be moved to the digital realm. Open Studio Saturday, in which people arrive at the facility to meet the artists and engage in hands-on art activities, will still take place in October but only online. An October art auction to benefit the artists will also take place, but it will also be online.

“It will be an opportunity to put money in the artists’ pockets and also create awareness that artists are still creating work,” Bellmas offers.

Just like other facilities where people started going back to work after the initial lockdown, McColl has implemented safety policies based on the governor’s mandate.

Everybody wears masks and uses hand sanitizer, Bellmas says. Markings on the floor show people where to stand when waiting for the elevator, and where to stand in the elevator.

Even with four artists-in-residence, it will be easy for them and McColl staff to maintain social distancing, Bellmas says. Each artist has their own studio. They can be in their space and keep the door closed.

McColl’s staff of nine people are rotated in groups of three, so only three staff members are working at the facility at any given time. Staff groups of three are at McColl’s converted church in Uptown for one week, and then off site for two weeks while they work at home. So, counting staff and artists-in-residence, the most people in the building at any time is seven.

“Our offices are strategically far apart from one another, so we have managed to find a way to get everybody back in the office and [also] keep everybody distant,” Bellmas says.

Green Light

Even though Discovery Place added Sundays to their schedule, their Uptown museums — Discovery Science and Discovery Nature — are only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Like Tuttle at The Light Factory, Horne and her staff at Discovery devised a way to put buildings to good use during times when they are dormant.

Discovery Place is offering a program called School Camp that uses the Uptown building Monday through Friday to support students.

“[Children] are not able to stay at home, or adults are not able to be at home, and the parents want their children in a productive learning environment,” Horne says of the program that serves children attending Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). After students attend virtual school, they can spend the rest of the day learning and experiencing science at Discovery Place.

Charlotte museums
Patrons visiting the Hezekiah Alexander House for the first time since the Charlotte Museum Of History closed down for the COVID pandemic enjoy socially distanced reenactments. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

But before Horne could allow campers or visitors into the museum, she first had to go over the facility with a fine-toothed comb.

With hundreds if not thousands of displays across four different museums, Horne and her staff assessed every single interactive piece in each one. The museum pieces were classified green, yellow and red. The majority of the pieces were green, Horne says, meaning good to go, but red and yellow pieces required more attention.

Red pieces and exhibits were removed from the floor or had their access limited. Then the yellow pieces were modified to make them safer, following CDC guidelines to provide not only an educational experience but also a safe one.

Charlotte museums
A socially distanced contest at Discovery Place. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The painstaking process Horne undertook to make sure the museums’ floors were as safe as possible is not an entirely unusual task among Charlotte museum workers and administrators Queen City Nerve surveyed. In fact, going the extra mile to ensure safety seemed to be the norm. These are people dedicated to enriching their community, be it through science, education, art — or common-sense safety standards.

Kay Tuttle at The Light Factory suggests the task is worth the effort when you weigh the benefits of reopening museums and galleries to the public.

“Art brings people together and helps us look at life from someone else’s perspective,” she offers. “With the pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires and murders like George Floyd’s, it is important that we come together as a community to listen and share our stories with empathy and compassion.”

Make sure to check out our 2020 Fall Arts Guide for a closer look at what Charlotte museums and local artists are up to. 

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