Madrid's Prado to reopen with cutbacks on crowds to stop virus - but could become permanent

James Badcock
A museum worker wears a protective mask as the Prado museum prepares for reopening - Reuters

Madrid’s Prado Museum reopens today, almost three months after closing its doors at the start of Spain’s Covid-19 epidemic, with a drastically reduced capacity that its director says may be a new way to experience art. 

Only 1,800 people per day will be allowed to enter the museum, around 20 per cent of the average number in normal circumstances, to see a selection of the Prado’s world-famous collection including masterpieces by Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Goya and Hieronymus Bosch.

Director Miguel Falomir said: “It’s true that we have seen excesses, with such large crowds in front of works that looking at them stops being a pleasant experience." 

“If you think of the Louvre, for example, there are thousands of people crowded around the Mona Lisa while other rooms stand empty.”

The sharply reduced and carefully staggered number of visitors in the Prado from this weekend will offer an opportunity for the museum’s management to analyse what changes could be made on a permanent basis to improve the art experience on offer.

 “The conversion of museums into a tourism phenomenon is a relatively recent phenomenon,” said Mr Falomir when asked by The Telegraph about what the ‘new normal’ might look like in the Prado after Spain’s lockdown restrictions are finally lifted.  

“It is still early to say, but after a few months of looking at the work more calmly, perhaps we will make decisions and place permanent limits on crowds,” he said. 

Such potential changes, however, will also require a reform of the Prado’s economic model, with the museum having lost €7 million in ticket receipts over the last 12 weeks.

“We are 70 per cent self-funding, and the lion’s share of that comes from ticket sales,” explained Marina Chinchilla, the Prado’s deputy director.

 Visitors, who will enjoy cut-price entry all summer to see a reduced “concentration” of the Prado’s greatest treasures, will have their temperatures taken electronically, must wear face masks and observe the two-metre safe social distancing rules, with markers on the floor to remind them in front of key works such as Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

The director of the Reina Sofia Museum, Manuel Borja-Villel, poses next to Pablo Picasso's painting 'Guernica' - Getty

The museum also says it has improved its air quality to the standards of a hospital to reduce the possibility of contagion.

Mr Falomir said the reduced capacity means that certain star works can be placed next to each other for simultaneous contemplation for the first time, given that such a move under normal circumstances would create a problematic scrum.

For example, Goya’s Charles IV of Spain and His Family, showing the royal family in its most opulent pomp, has been hung next to the harrowing The Third of May 1808, in which Spanish rebels face a Napoleonic firing squad under a dark Madrid sky.  

Visitors to Reencounter, the name given to the exhibition of the Prado’s reshuffled collection, can also compare Rubens and Goya’s different treatments of Saturn Devouring his Son, placed side by side in the museum’s monumental central gallery.

A five-minute walk from the Prado, the Reina Sofía museum also opens on Saturday, with director Manuel Borja-Villel another predicting that the Covid-19 crisis will change the way we appreciate art and end the “rapid consumption” model which has seen galleries packing visitors in over recent decades.

Visitors will be able to see Picasso’s Guernica among a group of no more than 30 people, around a third of the crowd that typically crams into the room that houses the Spanish Civil War masterpiece.

Coronavirus Spain Spotlight Chart - Cases default

“Visits to see Guernica will be of a higher quality and greater calm, allowing us to interact with this and the other works in a more intimate and personal way, with no school groups, tourists or other big groups around us,” said Mr Borja-Villel on presenting the reduced collection on display this summer at the Reina Sofía, also home to some of Salvador Dalí’s most celebrated paintings.

 The third museum in Madrid’s so-called ‘golden triangle’ of art, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, also reopens this weekend, showing its complete collection to a reduced crowd, as well as re-launching a Rembrandt exhibition that first opened in February.

Between them, the Prado, Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza attracted close to nine million visitors in 2019, and together form a key draw for tourists to Madrid.