If you touch museum interactive screens, wash your hands afterward. That’s what experts say in an era when museum visitors are increasingly encouraged to handle iPads and other interactives. Staffers tend to clean those daily at best, although researchers have found that digital screens may harbor more bacteria than toilet seats.
“There are plenty of documented cases of infections likely being transmitted by objects, such as rails, phones and clothing,” says Jonathan Eisen, a microbiology and immunology professor at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine.
Many overestimate the risk of contracting germs by touching pathogen-rich communal objects, “but it is important to realize it is not zero,” Eisen says. After swiping a screen, museum visitors should wash their hands with soap and water before touching their mouths, eyes or noses. They should also avoid touching their organs directly to the screens.
“That is, don’t lick the museum iPad or screen,” Eisen says.
Parents might want to avoid having young children — who can’t help touching their eyes, noses or mouths — touch germy objects. During flu season, “maybe museums should wash shared objects more often than otherwise,” Eisen says.
Christopher Mason, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York who has studied subways and high-trafficked public spaces in dozens of cities, is less concerned. “You are effectively just shaking hands with more people,” he says. And Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautions about “driving yourself a little bit to anxiety” worrying about things like hotel door knobs.
“You can get around all of this by just washing your hands as frequently as you can,” Fauci says. “I’m sure there’s a finite risk, probably extremely small.”
But even slight risks are scary, notes Neal Johnson, chair of the American Alliance of Museums’ media and technology professional network and senior digital projects manager at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
“Nobody wants to be responsible for spreading the next epidemic,” he says.
At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., everything is wiped down — especially the current virtual-reality Berlin Wall interactive display, says Scott Williams, the chief operating officer. “Museums know most visitors aren’t going to want to put something on their ears unless it’s been insanely cleaned,” he says. (Williams keeps wet wipes at his desk and cleans his phone “constantly.”)
During flu season, the Newseum washes devices that visitors handle on a daily basis, Williams says. That’s also the policy at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, the International Spy Museum and the National Building Museum. At the Smithsonian’s museums, “there is nothing special about the way we wipe screens,” spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas says. “It’s the same as you do at home.”
Visitors to the National Museum of Natural History can handle about 50 interactive screens, says Elizabeth Musteen, chief of exhibit production. The museum uses screens where necessary to tell certain stories, as in the ocean chemistry display. “If you say the words ‘ocean chemistry’ visitors are like, ‘I’m on vacation!’ ” she says.
Musteen, who has worked at the museum for 21 years, often sees parents pull children away from interactives. “People can’t resist touching a screen,” she says. And some are so conditioned to touch screens that she sees them touch non-interactive displays.
About 30 percent of the museum’s 7 million visitors each year tend to interact somewhat with touchable screens, she estimates, and about 10 percent use them for long enough to gain significantly meaningful experiences. That’s 700,000 people each year touching screens, which Musteen says are typically cleaned every morning.
“We do try to mitigate the germ issue,” she says. “I think a lot of people don’t think about it, like they don’t think about trying on a pair of sunglasses at Target.”
Musteen has asked her young children not to put their heads in those viewing stations at other museums. But when there was a flu outbreak and she and colleagues worried that they’d have to restock hand sanitizer dispensers regularly at the museum, that proved unfounded.
“The cynics among us thought they’d be empty every 30 minutes, but they weren’t,” Musteen says. When the museum opens its May 2018 exhibit “Outbreak,” there will be touch screens and hand sanitizer dispensers, she says.
At the National Gallery of Art, acoustiguides are cleaned after each use, and the media team cleans exhibition touch screens during daily rounds, with thorough cleanings weekly as needed, spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie says.
Building Museum staffers clean iPads daily with “wipes we get from Staples,” spokeswoman Emma Filar says. Workers are directed “to keep an eye on surfaces like iPads to clean as needed during the day” and they talk to materials manufacturers about how to clean objects in exhibitions, such as its 2015 installation “The Beach” and its current “Wright on the Walls” show.
At the Capitol Visitor Center, the maintenance staff cleans screens every evening, and “we have Purell stations around the building,” says Laura Trivers, a spokeswoman.
The Spy Museum staff hasn’t had great luck with iPads and recently retired a display, says youth education director Jacqueline Eyl. “People want an experience that’s unparalleled in everything they do today in their leisure time, especially with ticket prices,” she says.
Eyl is skeptical of virtual reality interactives in museums due to germs. “I don’t want to have to clean the goggles,” she says. “The headphones are kind of use at your own (risk). … There’s a certain grodiness that you have to think about with high visitation and germs.”
Changes in cleaning routines during flu season haven’t come up at the museum, which has an enclosed air vent through which visitors crawl. “I suppose maybe they should,” Eyl says.
Johnson, of the Austin museum, is less concerned about VR displays. When he goes to trade shows, Johnson often sees the people running virtual reality stations conspicuously wipe helmets after each use. “I’ve never heard anybody else worry about it until now,” he says.
At this year’s South by Southwest conference, which was dominated by virtual reality, that wasn’t the case. “I didn’t see a single wipe down in between uses, and I didn’t see anybody who cared,” he says.
But germs have the Newseum’s Williams wondering if museums should encourage visitors — when possible — to download extra content onto their phones. “That way, they’re using their own devices,” he says.
Several museums’ staffers questioned the practicality of cleaning screens after each use, but that’s just what happens — with bleach-free Lysol or Clorox wipes — with the iPads that the Detroit Institute of Arts staffers hand out to visitors at the museum’s Rivera Court. And with other tools, spokeswoman Christine Kloostra says, “attending staff is known to periodically clean those devices in the midmorning or afternoon downtime.”