Balboa Park museums are about to reopen. Here’s what you can expect
After a year of false starts, museum leaders are hoping this time is the last time they endure a COVID-19-related closure
After a year of fitful stops and starts, Balboa Park is finally reopening this week in what park museum leaders hope will be a long-overdue return to uninterrupted operations.
Beginning this week and well into April, almost all of the park’s museums and cultural attractions will reopen their doors as a result of the county moving into the less-restrictive red tier on Wednesday. The new tier allows museums to operate indoors at a maximum 25 percent capacity, with required modifications that include mandatory face coverings, hand sanitizing stations, special cleaning procedures and other social distancing protocols.
Peter Comiskey, executive director of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, said the past 12 months have been brutal for park institutions, many of which have opened and closed several times due to repeated countywide surges of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
“We are thrilled to welcome visitors back to venues in Balboa Park,” Comiskey said Wednesday. “Arts and culture organizations in the park and across San Diego have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, experiencing total closure for all or nearly all of the past year. Let’s all do our part to ensure restrictions continue to loosen, so more venues can open once again.”
For the fourth time in the past year, the San Diego Air & Space Museum was the first museum out of the gate Wednesday morning.
“We’re the only museum that is open the first day every time we could open. But I joke that I’ve bolted the door open this time,” said Jim Kidrick, the Air & Space museum’s president and CEO. “We’re using the same safe reopening plan for the fourth reopening as we did for the first because, for us, it works.”
Kidrick said the Air & Space museum is an easier building to prepare for indoor visitors because it has 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and free-flowing coastal air through windows near the the top of its 35- to 50-foot ceilings. Also, every visitor gets a free stylus pen so they don’t have to touch interactive exhibits with their fingers.
Kidrick said he’s been frustrated with the ever-changing safety rules, and he worries that the recent conversion of the adjacent 144-space South Palisades parking lot to a pedestrian plaza will reduce museum foot traffic. Nonetheless, he’s eager to see visitors indoors once again: “The reward for us,” he said, “is doing it the right way, and our team takes a lot of pride in that.”
The San Diego Museum of Art will reopen on Saturday for the first time since mid-November.
“We are more than ready to open, we’re eager, anxious and delighted,” said Roxana Velásquez, San Diego Museum of Art executive director.
Although 25 percent indoor capacity is allowed, the art museum is capping attendance at 20 percent, which is a maximum 350 visitors, to ensure visitors have plenty of space to move around while admiring the artwork, Velásquez said.
All 20 of the exhibit galleries will be filled, and some new artwork will be on display. On March 26, a new spring exhibit of art by San Diego schoolchildren will open, and Art Alive, the museum’s major fundraiser of the year, will return June 18-20 in an indoor/outdoor socially distanced format. Also on June 18 the museum will open two major exhibits of work, including masterpieces from 1500-1800 from the Bemberg Collection in Toulouse, France, and a contemporary exhibit by Spanish hyper-realistic artist Ana de Alvear.
Anthony Ridenhour, executive director of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, said he’s “ecstatic” to be reopening on April 2. Over the past year, Ridenhour said the museum has had great success with online programs, including virtual tours of model railroad layouts at local enthusiasts’ homes. But there’s nothing like the real thing.
“People love to see our trains running,” Ridenhour said. “As much as we try to promote our different programs online, you do lose a bit of the personal engagement that you get when you come down and see them in person.”
Ridenhour said the railroad museum will offer advance ticket sales as well as walk-up tickets. The museum’s capacity at 25 percent is 80 people, so there’s rarely a wait to get in the doors except for maybe a max of 15 minutes during the peak early-morning hours.
The San Diego Natural History Museum will also reopen April 2 after a yearlong closure. Unlike some museums that reopened briefly several times during the past year, the Nat kept its doors closed for most of the past 12 months. Staff used the time to renovate the museum’s fourth floor, build new exhibit space, expand online programming, conduct field and in-house research and make headway on a project to digitize its multimillion-specimen collection of insects, fossils and plant life.
“We’re very excited to welcome guests back,” said Judy Gradwohl, executive director at the Nat. “They’ll find a brand new exhibition focused on California wildflowers and climate change along with old favorites that have been spruced up. We’ll be spending the next couple of weeks to bring back and retrain staff so that we can be fully prepared to safely reopen the building. It will be a pleasure to see the building come back to life.”
One of the park’s last museums to reopen will be the Museum of Us, formerly known as the Museum of Man, which returns on April 21. The delay is the result of the museum’s plan to launch a new membership and museum entry program, said L. James Haddan, the museum’s senior director of development and external communications.
“One of the aspects of coming out of the pandemic with a new name is we want to embrace a new approach to access to the museum that will take a completely fresh look of membership,” Haddan said. “We had to install a whole new ticketing system. It’s expensive and it takes time to get it installed and have it working.”
In recent weeks, the old Museum of Man entry sign was taken down and replaced with the new title sign. Visitors arriving after April 21 will still be able to see the old sign inside the museum’s rotunda in a display that explains the reason behind the new name and how the museum’s mission has changed over the past decade, Haddan said.
Although most museums will be open by April 21, only a handful will initially be operating seven days a week. Before visiting, check for updates and museum hours at culturalpartnership.org, where questions can also be asked through a live chat feature.
BALBOA PARK REOPENING SCHEDULE
List is subject to updates.
MUSEUMS AND CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS
Japanese Friendship Garden
May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden
San Diego Air & Space Museum
San Diego Zoo
Spanish Village Art Center
Visitors Center in the House of Hospitality
United Nations Building and Gift Shop
WorldBeat Cultural Center - café only
San Diego Museum of Art
Reopening April 2:
Centro Cultural de la Raza
San Diego Automotive Museum
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
San Diego Natural History Museum
Reopening April 9:
Fleet Science Center
Reopening April 16:
Museum of Photographic Arts
San Diego History Center
Reopening April 21:
Museum of Us
Closed until further notice:
Balboa Park Activity Center
Balboa Park Club
Bud Kearns Memorial Pool
Comic-Con Museum - grand opening later this year
House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
Marston House Museum
Mingei International Museum - grand reopening in late summer
Observation Deck at Moreton Bay Fig Tree - grand opening April 30
The Old Globe
Timken Museum of Art
Veterans Museum at Balboa Park
San Diego Youth Symphony - ChIMES early music programs resumes, by reservation, April 7
San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, online instruction only
San Diego Junior Theatre, online instruction only
8:22 p.m. March 24, 2021: This story has been updated to reflect the new reopening date of April 9 for the Fleet Science Center.
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