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The First Time the Museum Closed

Bentley Boyd, Donor and Member Communications Manager
May 21, 2020
Black-and-white photograph looking over water to the white-columned façade of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Cleveland Museum of Art. Image courtesy museum archives.

Soon after the Cleveland Museum of Art opened its doors, a global health crisis forced the doors closed again.

The museum’s commencement in 1916 was a civic achievement for a booming city of burlesque houses and factories. The city was crowded with almost 600,000 people, more than a third of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Then, to meet the needs of Cleveland factories churning out supplies for World War I, a wave of workers from the South pushed the city to a population of almost 800,000 by 1918.

This claustrophobic environment made Cleveland vulnerable to the “Spanish flu,” which began in early 1918 and would eventually kill more than 17 million people worldwide. The virus hit a city that had no Cleveland Clinic yet, and it was a time when not every American doctor believed in germ theory. There were only about 1,000 hospital beds for the nation’s fifth largest city. A lack of information also hampered action against the virus: wartime censors blocked early reports of the virus’s spread in Europe in overcrowded and unclean military camps.

Troops leaving Cleveland for World War I. Used with permission from the collection Cleveland Picture File 1 at the Western Reserve Historical Society Research Library.

But as Americans went to those camps and returned to the U.S., it became clear in cities across America that a highly contagious disease was spreading. Sailors who worked the crammed troop ships going back and forth to Europe brought the disease to Boston in September. Saint Louis quarantined a barracks of soldiers in late September. By October 9, the City of Cleveland’s health commissioner told reporters “more radical steps are needed” to stop a virus that was alarming in the way it struck down young adults, who are not typically killed by pneumonia.

Then, as now, the main weapon against the airborne virus was social isolation. On October 10, Cleveland mayor Harry Davis ordered all theaters, movie houses, dance halls, night schools, and churches to close. He soon added to the list museums, libraries, cabarets, poolrooms, and bowling alleys. Downtown Halloween gatherings were canceled.

In another echo of today’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cleveland Museum of Art continued its work during closure. A Plain Dealer article on November 3 noted that museum director F. Allen Whiting and his staff were planning how to extend a tapestry exhibition on view when the museum closed, and art was still being gifted, including some rugs from J. H. Wade.

Tapestries by French, Italian, English, and American Designers. October 5 to December 1, 1918.

The CMA stayed closed for three weeks in 1918. The 2020 closure has lasted much longer. In both public health emergencies, there was public pressure to reopen quickly. In 1918, the city allowed churches to hold one service on Sundays starting November 10. People flooded the downtown streets to celebrate the end of World War I on November 11, and approximately 500,000 people went to the lakefront that week to see a show of weapons from the war, says John Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller Joint Professor in History at Case Western Reserve University. The city’s public schools were back in session November 18.

But Clevelanders continued to die in January and February. Ultimately, more than 4,400 Clevelanders died from the 1918 flu — a higher death rate than Chicago or New York City experienced, Grabowski says. It was also more deadly than serving in World War I: Cleveland lost 1,023 people in the fighting in Europe. As of May 21, 2020, there have been 202 deaths in Cuyahoga County traced to COVID-19 symptoms, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

During the influenza epidemic of 1918, Red Cross workers of Boston, Massachusetts, pack bundles of masks made for American soldiers. (Image courtesy the National Archives)

During the influenza epidemic of 1918, Red Cross workers of Boston, Massachusetts, pack bundles of masks made for American soldiers. (Image courtesy the National Archives)

After the 1918 closure, the museum was slow to return to its normal programming even after the doors reopened. One measure: Its attendance totaled 273,853 people in 1917, dipped to 231,828 people in 1918, and rebounded to 277,545 in 1919. As the effects of the pandemic waned in 1919, the city celebrated the museum reaching one million visitors since its opening in 1916.

The Cleveland Leader wrote that CMA attendance was made even more remarkable because, “Some conditions, notably the epidemic of influenza which forced the closing of the museum for several weeks, have been extremely adverse, and the war has constantly interfered with the normal current of American life. Neither art nor music has had a fair chance to demonstrate its full power for good in such a cosmopolitan city as Cleveland, with its much-mixed population and its manifold traditions and habits of normal life.”

The Cleveland News took a similar tone, looking confidently to the future: “The museum is not yet working up to its full capacity, and when the public attests greatly increased desire for its contributions to the beauty, charm and value of life in Cleveland, means can be found to enlarge its resources and expand its work.”

One can sense a similar outlook in 2020.

In the current public health battle against COVID-19, the Cleveland Museum of Art has been closed since March 14, 2020.