When we look back on this time, and the impact the novel coronavirus pandemic had on the cultural sector and beyond, how will museums’ responses be judged?
The move by many organisations to close sites to the public ahead of official government advice to do so was widely praised as sensible, with steps being taken to protect collections and buildings during closures.
But as the sector settles into a new normal of working from home, away from audiences and collections, there are concerns about job security and pay protection.
Many museums have guaranteed to pay staff during closures, and the government’s Job Retention Scheme, which will pay 80% of furloughed staff's salaries, should protect areas of the workforce not able to work from home.
The chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that self-employed workers will be paid up to 80% of their recent earnings up to £2,500 a month for three months.
According to the Museum Freelance Network, freelancers have seen months of work and income cancelled or postponed indefinitely – “with no or very limited hope of being able to secure new work and income in the foreseeable future”.In an open letter, the network asks that museums continue to work and communicate with freelancers, and pay fair rates on or ahead of time to ensure individuals can meet their financial needs. Several museum workers on zero-hour contracts have told Museums Journal in confidence that their respective museums stopped paying them after their doors closed to the public.
And last week, Industrial Museums Scotland warned that many of its members face insolvency in the immediate future, and that “dismissals, redundancies and wage cuts are inevitable if the organisations are to survive”.
Seasonal staff already hired by venues getting ready for spring are likely to be dismissed, and permanent staff may be forced to accept pay cuts or reduced hours.
Alan Leighton, Prospect union’s national secretary, said it was working with museums to ensure people will continue to be paid.
But he added that agency and temporary workers should be covered by the same provisions that employees are at this difficult time or risk “extreme hardship in the very near future”.
Ahead of the government latest “stay at home” advice, Museums Journal heard concerns that some London museums were asking members of staff to travel in via public transport in order to undertake work not normally in their job descriptions, such as deep cleaning, despite the potential risk to their health.
Responding to requests for comment, several of the city’s national museums said only essential staff were now required to work on site (security for example).
Three sector networks – Fair Museum Jobs, Front of House Museums and Museum Wellness – have published a statement outlining their concerns for the workforce.
“We urge museums and their associated organisations to give their unanimous support to the entire museum workforce at this critical time to ensure the long-term health and security of those working in museums,” it states.
“Museums are choosing to give special leave from day one; we support this action, as a demonstration of a museums support for their workers. We encourage all museums to make the decision to support their workforce by ensuring no time away as a result of the impact of Covid-19 is unpaid.
“Museums must support and prioritise their staff’s mental health at this time. Museums should be working to be flexible and understanding towards all staff in requests made to manage wellbeing and mental health, including flexible working arrangements, listening to worries and suggestions from front-of-house staff, and confirming support for employees on low-hour or zero-hour contracts in the event of building closure.”
At the weekend, Fair Museum Jobs launched a survey to collect data on what museums are doing to help staff and communities during the pandemic.
Despite the challenges for the workforce that lie ahead, many museums are taking a people-first approach during the crisis.In an article published on Medium, Katherine Maher, the chief executive officer of the Wikimedia Foundation, said its priority is to reduce staff stress and burden during this time. As well as homeworking, measures include guaranteeing all contract and hourly workers full compensation for planned hours worked; waiving all sick days; and moving moved to a half-time work expectation.
In the museum sector, the National Justice Museum in Nottingham has given its front-of-house team new roles and tasks, such as recording podcasts and filming videos, as well as supporting other departments through research.Those employed by council-run museums could potentially be redeployed to front-line services during the crisis, such as helping food banks or supporting helplines for vulnerable people.
Chad McGitchie, the head of visitor services at Manchester Museum and the Whitworth, says front-of-house staff from both venues are using Slack, an online platform for remote work, to share updates and develop wellbeing projects.
“I think this is going to revolutionise the way visitor teams work and communicate,” he says. “I can't remember a time where we all felt like one united team - as normally we are all in at different days and times. We already have so many new things developing.”