Writers' museums fear Covid-19 crisis is the start of a difficult new chapter - Museums Association

Writers’ museums fear Covid-19 crisis is the start of a difficult new chapter

Lockdown could push many literary institutions to the brink
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Simon Stephens
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Nathaniel Hepburn, director and chief executive, Charleston Trust photo by Alun Callender
The Covid-19 crisis has led to a boom in reading as people look to fill their time during lockdown, but this must be cold comfort for the museums dedicated to writers.
From small venues such as the Charles Dickens Museum in London to larger operations such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, they are having an extremely difficult time.
These types of museums are often independent operations and are financially vulnerable as they depend on earned income for a large proportion of their revenue. For many, closing during the profitable spring period, including the Easter holidays, is very challenging. Many of these museums can just about struggle through the next few months with the support of funders and government initiatives such as the Job Retention Scheme. But it is when things start to return to normal that the real problems could start. They will have to address issues such as depleted reserves and the possibility of ongoing social distancing measures that might make life difficult, or even impossible, operationally. Charleston, the site in Sussex dedicated to members of the Bloomsbury Group of artists, writers and thinkers, is facing a particularly difficult period. In order to survive, the site, which closed on 19 March has furloughed nearly all staff and is applying for emergency funding from various sources, including the National Lottery Heritage Fund (Heritage Fund) and Arts Council England (ACE). “This could not have come at a worse time for us,” says Nathaniel Hepburn, the director and chief executive of the Charleston Trust. “It is a period after a major capital project, when we have not got big reserves, we have had to cancel our most important festival and what is usually our busiest month is coming up shortly. Hepburn estimates that during the months that Charleston will be closed for, it would normally generate about £600,000 in surpluses.“We are now having to plug a financial gap that is happening through no fault of our own,” Hepburn continues. “We need £500,000 to stay afloat.”
Hepburn says the key problem is that while the organisation can just about get through the next few months, it is what happens after that period that is the real challenge.
“Our Emergency Appeal is underway and we have £70,000 in donations and pledges so far,” he says. “It will be rolled out through the coming months, but I can’t see that it will get us to what we need. What we need is an autumn recovery package.” The Charles Dickens Museum operates in a very different environment than Charleston, being a small central-London site. But it is facing similar challenges. This Accredited independent museum receives no regular public funding and has an annual turnover of about £800,000, all of which is self-generated. About 50% of its income comes from admission fees, 25% from shop sales, 10% cafe, and the rest through special events, private hires, film facilitation fees, etc.
“After a record-breaking February, our income for March was half of what it was last year, and since we were forced to close on 18 March, there is nothing coming in at all,” says Cindy Sughrue, the director of the Charles Dickens Museum.
“We have often been held up as an example of success, caring for and sharing an unrivalled collection while covering our own operating costs. Occasionally, we seek public funding for special projects and acquisitions but otherwise we thrive without calling on ACE, the Heritage Fund or others for ongoing revenue support.”
Sughrue says that while government support measures are welcome, they are not nearly enough. The museum has furloughed as many staff as it can but is still carrying some staff costs, as well as other ongoing overheads of about £30,000 each month. Like many other museums, it is applying to the Heritage Fund’s Heritage Emergency Fund and, if successful, this will help. But Sughrue says that the period after this is a concern. “We are all working without any certainty on timescale, but whenever we reopen we expect it to be a slow recovery because our audience will be greatly affected. Like many other cultural institutions in London, overseas visitors are significant contributors – about 50% across the year, with peaks in summer and in December. We don’t expect overseas visitors to return for some months, probably not for a year in the usual numbers. Also, some of our visitors fall into the categories that may be asked to remain socially distant for longer.” Sughrue says that, assuming it can reopen in July, it is modelling on the basis of 25% of its usual footfall and associated spend for July-September, rising to 30% in October and November, and possibly reaching 50% in December and remaining at that level, taking account of seasonal fluctuations until spring 2021. “This scenario seems reasonable on the basis of what we know now – it may be a little better, it could be worse,” Sughrue says. “In any event, not trading for some weeks or months as we are at the moment, followed by a lengthy period of recovery period will put the museum in an extremely precarious position.” Tim Cooke, the chief executive at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is in charge of a huge operation. It is an arts council NPO, it cares for a Designated Collection and has statutory conservation responsibilities for national treasures in the shape of the five Shakespeare family homes. The organisation projected income before the pandemic for 2020-21 was just over £10m. As a direct result of the crisis, income for this year is predicted to fall by up to £8m. Some of this has been partially offset by the government’s Job Retention Scheme and significant expenditure reductions, but it is still a huge challenge.
“We are often held up as an exemplar because we generate 98% of our own income,” says Cooke. “But that very strength is now also our very weakness in these particular circumstances.
“The potential impact of this for us is severe and likely to continue to impact significantly for several years ahead,” Cooke continues. “Firstly, of course, we need to survive. Without a short-term future there is no long-term future. We do, of course, need to find fairly immediate solutions to cashflow and that’s a huge challenge. But we also need to think more medium to long-term now about our future funding model and what is realistic in terms of the scale and focus of our charitable work. The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. is on a far smaller scale than the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, but is also heavily dependent on earned income. Fortunately, it has strong reserves to help it survive the next few months, but its director, Steve Gardam, is already looking further ahead. “We have got reserves but we are thieving from our future to serve the present,” Gardam says. “My real concern is that while the focus is on the next couple of months, and I get that and there is no criticism of that, I think the issue for lots of organisations is where they will be in five months, 10 months, 15 months. “It boils down to this,” Gardam says. “A museum may have enough financial health right now to not show severe symptoms, but that does not save us from getting infected with the financial sickness of this necessary shutdown. We need government to understand that lifting the shutdown will not save us from future difficulty if the shutdown is nominally ended but public health guidance is at odds with an assumption that organisations can run as if Covid-19 hadn’t happened.” Gardam and other similar museums want longer-term financial support and acknowledgement that there is no one-size fits all solution. “We can only hope that there is the political will to ensure that culture receives the financial support it needs and deserves in order to survive the crisis,” says Hepburn at Charleston. “We can only communicate and point out what our society would look like without the extraordinary contribution that culture makes in enriching people’s lives and the enormous economic benefit it brings through things like tourism.”
Cooke is also looking beyond the next few months. “I do certainly admire and welcome all of the effort and funding being directed to support our sector,” he says.
“Those with the power to help are doing their very best in almost impossible circumstances – and, we must also remember, against a background of so much death, distress and uncertainty. However, in terms of our sector and our continuing collective importance in supporting knowledge, discovery, well-being and creativity, I think it’s vital that after the initial response, the dialogue about solutions becomes more sophisticated and bespoke.”

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