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Shutdowns, layoffs, virtual tours: How Dutch museums are coping with COVID-19


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: A patchwork of COVID-19 related regulations applies to museums around the world.

In New York and Rome museums are open .. But they are closed in Paris, London and Amsterdam.

This week The Netherlands' prime minister announced the country's lockdown will be extended until March 15, keeping museums there closed and forcing them to find ways to survive without visitors.

Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports.

Megan Thompson: Corona-times in Amsterdam. The city's miles of canals are still beautiful … but quiet. Popular squares like the normally bustling Rembrandtplein, deserted. And the city's museums, more than 140 in all, closed because of Covid. Including the world famous Van Gogh Museum.

In 2019, there were 2.1 million visitors. 85% coming from abroad to see masterworks like Sunflowers.

Today that gallery is empty. As are all the other galleries filled with priceless pieces by Van Gogh.

Emilie Gordenker: We're here in the middle of the day and to see it so quiet it's a real shock.

It's kind of an introduction. It's all about his self-portraits as you can see...

Megan Thompson: Emilie Gordenker had been the Van Gogh Museum's new General Director for just six weeks, when Covid hit.

Emilie Gordenker: Normally we would have generated about $4.1 million a month in ticket sales and that went to nothing. So we really had to move fast. So we cancelled building projects. We looked at our exhibition program. We looked at ongoing and temporary contracts we had with personnel and really cut it down to an absolute minimum.

Megan Thompson: Three separate government mandated lockdowns forced museums in the Netherlands to close for a total of 110 days last year, and for all of this year so far.

Dutch museums were allowed to open briefly last June with strict social distancing rules in place.

It's one thing for a museum like the Van Gogh to enforce safe distances in its large galleries. It's a trickier problem for another one of Amsterdam's most famous museums: The Anne Frank House.

Ronald Leopold: The house and the hiding place was right up here.

Megan Thompson: NewsHour toured the museum with Executive Director Ronald Leopold. This is where 13-year old Anne, her family and four others, all Jewish, hid from the Nazis during WWII.

The house is a maze of narrow staircases and small rooms.

Ronald Leopold: So this is Anne's room. This is where she was in hiding.

Megan Thompson: The room where Anne slept is less than 7 feet wide.

Ronald Leopold: There was a small table right there where she sat and wrote in her diary. As you can see it's a small room.

Megan Thompson: That means even when they do long as social distancing is in place, only about 25% of the people who normally visit will be allowed in.

Many major Dutch museums are hanging on with a combination of cash reserves, endowments, and donations. The Dutch government has also stepped in with millions in subsidies to help cover lost revenue and salaries. Still there've been layoffs.

Ronald Leopold: I'm very happy about the way the government is supporting us in these times. It's just not enough. We had to lay off about 20% of our staff. We don't know when social distancing will end. We don't know if and how international travel will pick up. COVID, to us, is a financial disaster.

Megan Thompson: In a survey among the 450 or so members of the Dutch Museum Association, 30% of the participants said they might not last another year. Three have already closed permanently, including two small museums on Amsterdam's historic Herengracht canal.

Jolanda van den Berg: The building is from 1675. So this is a twin building and we had this building.

Megan Thompson: For five years the Dutch Costume Museum was a labor of love for Jolanda van den Berg. She poured thousands of dollars into renovating and decorating the 17th century canal house and was looking at 2020 being a banner year. Then COVID hit.

Jolanda van den Berg: This was the room of Volendam. We had every region with traditional costumes we gave every region their own room. This was Zeeland.

Megan Thompson: As the owner of a private museum with a volunteer staff she did not qualify for government assistance.

Jolanda van den Berg: It's very empty now.

Megan Thompson: In July, on the verge of bankruptcy, she realized she couldn't make it.

Jolanda van den Berg: This is the first time I cried about it. But it's good it's over because nobody stops COVID so...

Megan Thompson: Part of coping with COVID has meant Dutch museums thinking of new ways to stay relevant by offering mostly free virtual tours.

Even though the museums in The Netherlands are closed you can visit a lot of them online.

One of them is the Rijks Museum, the national museum of The Netherlands.

I'm here in a beautiful grand hallway full of Dutch art. All around me I have a 360 degree view here of this hall. And many of the paintings have an option to click on them and learn more.

Megan Thompson: You actually get a pretty good sense of the museum. A sense of the space and also learn a huge amount about the contents in it.

Another museum, in Eindhoven, a city south of Amsterdam, is taking virtual tours one step farther.

Marleen Hartjes: This is a telepresence robot and with this robot you can log in from anywhere in the world with your mobile device or laptop and steer the robot around in the museum.

Megan Thompson: I was curious to take the tour myself. First step...logging on from my home office in Minnesota with special software.

Marleen Hartjes: Hi

Megan Thompson: Hello, good morning.

Marleen Hartjes: Good morning!

The guide, Marleen Hartjes, can see me, and I can see her.

Megan Thompson: Thank you so much for having me. This is amazing. I'm like basically right there with you.

I use controls on my computer to navigate my way around.

Marleen Hartjes: The building is very big so we do a quick run through.

Megan Thompson: Okay. Yes. Oops.

Marleen Hartjes: So look at this painting. What do you see?

Megan Thompson: What do I see? I think I see a woman.

Marleen Hartjes: What makes you say it's a woman?

Megan Thompson: Maybe the hair. Maybe the face?

Marleen Hartjes: Yes! This is a famous work by Pablo Picasso. The work is called Femme en Vert.

Megan Thompson: When did Picasso paint this?

Marleen Hartjes: This is an artwork from 1909.

So we are going to go that way.

Megan Thompson: Hartjes says the robot was originally introduced in 2015 to help give people with disabilities virtual access to the museum's collection of contemporary art, but it's gotten more traction because of COVID.

Megan Thompson: This is pretty unique.

Marleen Hartjes: Yeah. It's still pretty unique. And we're still the only ones in Europe. And I got like phone calls every week, ask me questions on how does it work, what do you need, what does the museum need to use it?

I find this quite a very funny story.....

Megan Thompson: The Van Abbemuseum charges about $16 for an individual robot tour and about $50 for a group tour with a guide. But, it's more of a public service than a money maker.

And while Hartjes is glad she's been able to continue giving tours with the robot, she's hoping the day the museum reopens and she can talk to real, live visitors will come very soon.

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