Reopening the museum sector

Statement on the support needed to facilitate reopening

As the coronavirus crisis develops, museums across the UK are beginning to consider how and when they will be able to reopen their doors to the public.

The decision to reopen any museum will be based on government and scientific advice, but it is increasingly clear that reopening will be a risky and difficult process for many museums, with a range of financial and operational considerations for directors, funders and policy-makers to take into account.   

Our goals

The Museums Association (MA) believes that museums should be enabled to reopen to the public as soon as it is safe for public and staff to do so and all necessary public hygiene and social distancing measures are in place. 

In order to facilitate reopening the following support is needed:

  • museums should be eligible for emergency public support during an extended period following the end of lockdown to ensure their continued survival
  • governments should provide clear and unambiguous messages to the public on the safety of visiting museums once it is appropriate to do so
  • museums should play a prominent part in any campaign to encourage the public and international visitors to return to cultural venues in the UK 
  • any museum unable to reopen because of inability to comply with social distancing measures should be eligible for emergency funding to ensure their continued survival.

Financial implications of reopening

All museums in the UK are currently closed, leading to a huge deficit in budgets across all types of museum. The hardest hit are those museums that raise the largest proportion of their income from earned income, such as ticket sales, cafes, shops etc, although all museums are affected to some degree.

For many museums, the lockdown has come at the worst possible time – during peak spring and summer months when they generate the vast majority of their income and attract the largest proportion of visitors from the UK and overseas.

The MA is concerned that many of these organisations will not survive if the lockdown continues for many months. There is therefore a real and urgent need for museums to reopen and begin serving their communities and trading again. We believe that this is possible with due consideration for public health (see Operational issues below).

However, there are also several issues that make reopening a complex financial decision:

Seasonality

The coronavirus lockdown has come at the worst possible time for many museums by wiping out their ability to trade during the key spring and summer months. It is possible that museums will not be able to reopen until well into the summer season, and possibly not until the autumn.

The loss of peak trading income, combined with the likelihood that visitation will be substantially reduced immediately following reopening, risks creating a second financial crisis for museums upon reopening. Many organisations will have used their reserves and will be incapable of paying staff and costs for the duration of the low season until peak trading begins again in spring 2021. This could result in another wave of job losses and potentially further insolvencies across the sector.

The MA believes that governments across the UK should commit to continue to support museums across the UK beyond the formal end of the lockdown.

Public attitudes 

It is unclear what the impact the coronavirus crisis will have on the public’s behaviour after the lockdown is ended. It seems probable that the public will be cautious about attending public spaces and gatherings for some time to come. In particular, it is difficult to envisage international tourism returning to pre-crisis levels for several years.

We therefore anticipate that there will be a period of adjustment during which museums will need both public support and a reappraisal of business models in order to secure their operations in the long-term.

The MA is working with other sector bodies to better understand public attitudes on returning to cultural venues, and we would like to see governments working to gather and track data on public attitudes across domestic and international visitors so that museums can plan appropriately for their reopening.  

Uncertainty

At present there is little information available on how the lockdown might be lifted, which makes it difficult for museums to plan ahead for reopening. The possibility of a phased lifting of lockdown poses substantial questions for museums.

The financial viability of some museums will depend on whether the lifting of lockdown rules is differentiated by age group, geographic location, size of venue or other variables. The sooner governments are able to share thinking on how reopening will happen, the sooner the sector will be able to plan ahead.

Operational issues

We believe that it is possible for many museums to reopen to the public in the first phases of lifting the current lockdown. Many museums are well-placed to introduce social distancing measures similar to those currently used in supermarkets, such as maintaining 2m distance between visitors, timed entry, and eliminating cash payments.

However, such measures will come at a considerable financial cost, and some museums might not be able to justify the cost of reopening under such conditions. There is also a large group of museums where social distancing is more difficult to implement, including those with a focus on hands-on family engagement and those sited in historic properties with limited space.

Other operational issues that may complicate reopening include:  

  • The availability of volunteers. A high proportion of volunteers are retirees who are likely to be some of the most concerned about returning to organisations where they will be exposed to public contact. Many smaller museums will struggle to provide a normal service without the support of volunteers.
  • The availability of staff. Some staff may be unavailable due to ill-health or self-isolation. Staff in local authority museums may have been redeployed to other services. Furloughed staff will need to be brought back into the institution. And although we anticipate fewer visitors, it is likely museums will need at least as many if not more staff in public areas to support social distancing and give reassurance – as well as a warm welcome back – to visitors.
  • The ability to produce temporary exhibitions. While permanent exhibitions will clearly be on display, many museums will need time to organise new temporary exhibitions, which involve new loan agreements and transportation of objects. For museums that rely mainly or wholly on temporary exhibitions, this is a serious issue.

The MA urges governments to learn from the examples of other countries reopening strategies, and to consider the different circumstances of different types and locations of museums when considering how to introduce reopening to the sector.

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