Despite the Coronavirus, Winterthur has enjoyed record attendance since reopening June 1.
In the first week of June, 2,000 visitors walked the grounds of the estate, a year-over-year increase compared to the same week in 2019 — which demonstrates the enormous popularity of the estate’s grounds and gardens.
There are two reasons why this shouldn’t have happened: the main house is closed – only the gardens are open – and Winterthur is still closed to non-members.
Explaining pent up demand, Winterthur spokesperson Mark Nardone points out that, “People have been waiting for this. Now we know how much people have missed being able to visit the property.”
For now, the grounds remain open only to in-state and out-of-state members, who have reserved in advance.
After months of sheltering in place, the public is hungry for a top-caliber experience like Winterthur. Nardone says the good weather has also played a significant role in the attendance at the gardens.
While Winterthur was allowed to welcome all visitors at the start of Phase 1 of the state’s economic reopening, the Greenville institution pushed out its full reopening to July 1 – that’s when non-members can return and the first-floor galleries of the museum and library will reopen.
“Our sequence is a little bit out of step with the Governor’s [rolling reopening]. But we wanted to make sure that we are absolutely safe, that we are absolutely considering our visitors,” said Nardone.
Expanded Wi-Fi and a new app for visitors will help as guided tours are off-limits
Like other cultural institutions, Winterthur has devoted a considerable amount of time and energy developing a plan for welcoming back all visitors and expanding the available tours at the house.
They have upgraded their Wi-Fi access throughout the house and galleries and developed an app that will put more information than ever before at the fingertips of visitors.
“You’ll be able to learn more about the exhibitions from the app, which will augment to the traditional wall labels,” said Nardone.
Winterthur will also have directional signs on the floor and guides who will cue people if they linger too long at any particular object or display.
Restaurants, retail stores, and the Visitor’s Center are not open. But outdoor restrooms, including those at the 1750 House, are open. And of course, the Enchanted Garden, where children enjoy playing, is open.
Dozens of new boxwoods were planted during the shutdown
While the museum and gardens were closed, the grounds crew was hard at work making improvements. For example, gardeners planted a new row of boxwoods in the Sundial Garden.
“We’ve tried several things over the years, but nothing really worked. The plants didn’t exactly like our environment,” said Nardone. “The boxwoods should thrive there. They’re very much in the spirit of what Mr. [Henrry Francis] du Pont would have done. Longtime visitors members who are very familiar with grounds will notice that,” said Nardone.
Museum staff have moved antiques to open up space around the works of art to ensure visitors can practice social distancing yet still enjoy the best of the museum’s collections.
Regardless of when the Governor announces his Phase 3 reopening, Winterthur says theirs will take place after Labor Day. At that time, they will have more exhibitions in place and resume modified house tours.
Because the complete house tour requires use of an elevator, it can’t accommodate the usual number of passengers at a safe social distance.
“We cannot ensure proper physical distance distancing on the elevator so we’ve had to rethink how the house is toured,” said Nardone.
Another Covid-related innovation under consideration for Phase 3 is a self-guided tour of the fifth floor, where visitors would see the Chinese Parlor and the Montmorenci Stair Hall – the famed spiral staircase from the central hall at Montmorenci, a grand historic house in Warren, Virginia. Visitors will enter the fifth-floor Conservatory directly from the outdoors (a good portion of the lower floors is below grade) and take a self-guided tour of those galleries.
This change in the tour will reinvigorate the experience for first time and repeat visitors and allow the visitor to look at art in a new way.
While there is much to look forward to and enjoy now at Winterthur, Nardone says the prolonged closure and the guidelines around social distancing have also taken a toll. He cites a statistic that cultural institutions collectively across the country are losing over $300 million a day. “We are not immune from that,” says Nardone. He added that the Museum is doing what it can to minimize the impact.
And the new focus on safety compliance, says Nardone, has inspired museum administrators to be resourceful and develop new ways to improve the visitor experience.
“I think the great thing about what has happened here is that it has forced the museum to not only make accommodations for COVID, but it’s got us thinking about ways to make a better experience overall.”
“Museums and public arts exist for people. And we want to share what we have. The staff feels it personally when we can’t have people visiting. We’re as excited to welcome back members and other guests,” said Nardone.