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TOURISM

How Spain’s museums are preparing to reopen in pandemic era

Madrid's Reina Sofia is preparing to reopen with new social distancing and hygiene measures in place.

How Spain's museums are preparing to reopen in pandemic era
Photo by Gabriel Buoys / AFP

The halls are eerily quiet at Madrid's Reina Sofia, Spain's most visited museum, as a solitary art restorer looks after its star attraction — Pablo Picasso's anti-war masterpiece “Guernica”.

Like all of Spain's museums, the modern art museum housed in a former hospital has been closed since mid-March due to a nationwide lockdown to contain one of the world's deadliest coronavirus outbreaks.

But with the restrictions starting to be eased, it is getting ready to reopen — hopefully in a month — with new social distancing and hygiene regulations in place for the pandemic age.

Museums must “convey the message that there is no need to fear others,” said the Reina Sofia's director, Manuel Borja-Villel.   

Visitors will move through the multi-story building on a circular path so as not to cross by one another, cameras will take people's temperature and dispensers for hand sanitiser will be distributed across the museum, he told AFP.   

Paper maps and brochures will no longer be available as they can transmit germs, and visitors will instead be able to download an info app on their own smartphones.

“There will be nothing that people can touch,” said Borja-Villel.   

After weeks of confinement, visiting museums can help to revive public life, he added.

“It is important to transmit this joy of being with others, this idea that human beings, by definition, are not alone,” he said. 

Less big exhibitions?

The Reina Sofia received 4.4 million visitors in 2019, half of them from outside Spain, but it fears it will see a 30 percent fall in revenues this year because of the coronavirus lockdown.

The government has ordered museums to restrict admissions to a third of their capacity when they do re-open to ensure social distancing rules are respected.

Borja-Villel predicts museums will have to move away from their current model based on holding a series of “big exhibitions” and adopt a more long-term strategy.

While the Reina Sofia is closed to the public, restoration work continues.    

“We must remain to ensure works remain in good shape,” said the museum's chief restorer, Jorge Garcia Gomez-Tejedor, who wore a face mask as he inspected “Guernica”, the emblematic painting depicting the horrors of Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

The Reina Sofia, along with the nearby Prado and the Thyssen museums, form a so-called “Golden Triangle of Art” which is one of the Spanish capital's top tourism draws.

Digital transformation

The Prado — Spain's national museum which is home to paintings by Spanish masters such as El Greco, Velazquez and Goya  — fears a 70 percent drop in revenues this year, said its communications director Carlos Chaguaceda.    

Around 60 percent of its visitors are foreigners, with a significant number from the United States, he added.

The Prado was already forced to reschedule all of the temporary exhibitions it had planned for this year due to problems in receiving loans of works from other museums during the pandemic, which has brought air traffic to a halt.   

At the Thyssen, the pandemic has been “a trigger for the digital transformation” at the institution, said its executive director, Evelio Acevedo.

During the lockdown the museum boosted the amount of its online content, by for example providing a virtual tour of a temporary exhibition of portraits by Dutch master Rembrandt led by the show's curator.

The “Rembrandt and Amsterdam portraiture” exhibition opened on February 18th and had initially been set to run until May 24th, but it will likely now be extended to the end of August.

This sort of free online content won't stem an expected 60 percent drop in revenues this year but they are helping to launch “a transformation process that will last years,” said Acevedo.

By AFP's Alvaro Villalobos

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TOURISM

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years

Jordi Faulí is the seventh chief architect of Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia since Antoni Gaudi began work on the basilica in 1883, and he had been expected to oversee its long-awaited completion.

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years
Jordi Faulí is the seventh architect director of the Sagrada Familia following Antoni Gaudi and, for many, the one destined to finish it. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

But the pandemic has delayed efforts to finish this towering architectural masterpiece, which has been under construction for nearly 140 years, and it is no longer clear whether Faulí will still be in charge when it is finally done.

“I would like to be here for many more years, of course, but that’s in God’s hands,” says Faulí, 62, a wry smile on his lips.

He was just 31 when he joined the architectural team as a local in 1990 — the same age as Gaudi when the innovative Catalan architect began building his greatest work in the late 19th century, a project that would take up four decades of his life.

“When I arrived, only three of these columns were built and they were only 10 metres (33 feet) high,” he explains from a mezzanine in the main nave.

“I was lucky enough to design and see the construction of the entire interior, then the sacristy and now the main towers.”

When finished, the ornate cathedral which was designed by Gaudi will have 18 towers, the tallest of which will reach 172 metres into the air.

READ ALSO: Pandemic to delay completion fate for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

The second-highest tower, which is 138 metres tall and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be officially inaugurated on Wednesday with the illumination of the gigantic 5.5-tonne star crowning its highest point.

It is the tallest of the nine completed towers and the first to be inaugurated since 1976.

The long-awaited completion of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia will no longer happen in 2026 because the coronavirus epidemic has curtailed its construction and frustrated funding, basilica officials admitted. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP
 
Construction halted by Civil War

In 2019, the Sagrada Familia welcomed 4.7 million visitors, making it Barcelona’s most visited monument.

But it was forced to close in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, with its doors staying shut for almost a year.

This year, there have been barely 764,000 visitors, municipal figures show.

And as entry tickets are the main source of funding for the ongoing building works, the goal of finishing the basilica by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death — he was run over by a tram — has been abandoned.

“We can’t give any estimate as to when it will be finished because we don’t know how visitor numbers will recover in the coming years,” Faulí says.

It is far from the first time Gaudi’s masterpiece has faced such challenges.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, construction work stopped and many of Gaudi’s design plans and models were destroyed.

For critics, this major loss means they do not view what was built later as Gaudi’s work, despite the research carried out by his successors.

READ ALSO: Central spire will make the Sagrada Familia tallest church in the world

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime.

But Faulí insists the project remains faithful to what Gaudi had planned as it is based on the meticulous study of photographs, drawings and testimony from the late Modernist architect.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Some local opposition

Nominated chief architect of the project in 2012, Faulí took over at the head of a team of 27 architects and more than 100 builders.

Today, there are five architects and some 16 builders working to finish the Sagrada Familia.

“It is a lot of responsibility because it’s an iconic project, which many people have an opinion about,” says Faulí.

Building such a vast monument which draws huge numbers of visitors is not welcomed by everyone, with some arguing that the hoards of visiting tourists are destroying the area.

Many also oppose plans to build an enormous staircase leading up to the main entrance, the construction of which will involve the demolition of several buildings, forcing hundreds to relocate.

“My life is here and they want to throw me out,” says one sign on a balcony near the Sagrada Familia.

Faulí said he understands their concerns and wants to find “fair solutions” through dialogue.

And if he could ask Gaudi one question? Faulí pauses to reflect for a few moments.

“I would ask him about his underlying intentions and what feelings he wanted to communicate through his architecture,” he says.

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