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Museums in a COVID world: A visit to the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst

Mummy portrait of a woman with a broad collar. Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD. ©Sandra Alvarez

I just came back to London after travelling through Germany. It was my first trip since early January when the world of travel was a vastly different place. One of the things that I‘d been missing most during lockdown was being able to visit a museum. I love museums, and they took a hard hit due to the pandemic, with smaller ones disappearing or under threat of permanent closure. Fortunately, many museums have slowly come back from the brink, and with carefully planned reopenings, they‘ve begun to allow visitors back to enjoy their wonderful treasures again. While I was in Munich, I decided to make my first official visit to the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst – a place that has long been on my museum bucket list. I wanted to see how museums were managing patron safety and what museum visiting looks like in this new post-COVID world.

Safety First

Clever signage to encourage visitors to take museum safety seriously. ©Sandra Alvarez

I have to preface this post by saying that I found compliance in general in Germany to COVID safety rules much higher than in the UK. On my visits to restaurants, shops, and on public transport, I felt much safer because guidance was strictly enforced - no exceptions. By the time I reached Münich near the end of our vacation, I felt a lot less nervous about visiting a museum after observing how seriously safety measures were taken in public spaces. The SMAK was no different. Masks, hand sanitization stations, and social distancing are the rule. They take visitor safety very seriously, but as you can see from their signage, they also have a sense of humour.

Things to see

The upper part of the coffin of the king's daughter and king's sister Sat-Djehuti. ©Sandra Alvarez

The entrance to the museum is quite clever - it resembles the entryway to an Egyptian mastaba. Once inside, you will find that the museum’s primary layout is not typically chronological; it is split into sections such as art and form, artisan crafts, religion, art and time, scripts and writings, and other cultures that impacted ancient Egypt. Within these sections, items are displayed chronologically. I liked this set up rather than starting from the Old Kingdom and moving all the way through to Roman Egypt, as is the case in many other museums. I found the focus on one aspect of Egyptian life easier to absorb, with all the information on that topic easily accessible in one place. If that specific subject isn’t of interest to you, you can simply move on to the next themed room. There is a room that is dedicated to covering all five millennia of ancient Egypt’s history that provides a high-level summary, but you will get more out of your visit by immersing yourself in each themed space.

Highlights for me included seeing the long rolled out parchment of the Book of the Dead, stunning coffins, the beautiful golden head king's daughter and king's sister Sat-Djehuti, and the famous mummy portraits and masks from Roman Egypt. There is also beautiful jewellery from the first century AD treasure of Amanishakheto that is a stunning blend of Egyptian and Hellenic goldwork. Aside from ancient Egyptian pieces, there is also a room dedicated to Nubia and Sudan, the ancient Near East, and life after the Pharaohs. It is difficult to pick just one thing, there are so many incredible items to choose from.

Important! Before you visit...

The Five Millennia room with interactive stations detailing ancient Egypt"s vast history. ©Sandra Alvarez

The admission cost is €7 per adult. While there is no need to pre-book online or timed visits (you can just show up on the day), one bone of contention I have with the museum is that I still had to pay with cash. I could not use a UK credit card or debit card. The only cards they accept are German EC cards. This is unacceptable for a world-class museum with visitors from around the globe, especially during a pandemic when contactless/card payment is better in the interests of public health and safety. This needs to be addressed.

Bags are permitted, but only if you have no food or drink in them. Please note: some museums in Munich are particular about bag size, so even a handbag might be “verboten”. It is always a good idea to check beforehand, but just avoid the hassle altogether and leave big bags and rucksacks at your hotel and only take a phone, camera, and cash.

Photography without flash is permitted.

You must wear a mask at all times during your visit. There are no exceptions. When you enter the museum, they have hand sanitizer available immediately before you begin.

There is a one-way movement system in place that you must follow with the direction clearly marked on the floor as you move from room to room. I accidentally wandered into another area and was promptly rerouted by security. There is no backtracking, so make sure you take everything in before moving on to the next section.

In Germany, you must keep 1.5m apart to maintain social distancing. This wasn‘t a problem on the day of my visit (in the middle of the day mid-week) - there were very few people, so it felt as if I had the museum to myself. The one benefit of our current situation is that there are no crowds. You aren’t crushed against people to view popular artifacts. It has taken some of the stress out of visiting. You can calmly walkthrough, take your time, and enjoy each item, and I did exactly that – I spent over two hours in the museum taking it all in.

In spite of the restrictions now in place at museums, my first visit back was a pleasure. I enjoyed myself and felt safe. SMAK did an excellent job of maintaining visitor safety while balancing the need to re-open to the public. If you are planning to visit Munich in the future, SMAK is a must-see destination to add to your things to do list.

For more information about visiting SMAK, click here.

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