So far, so good: reflections on reopening

Despite the practical challenges and far lower visitor numbers, museums have had a largely positive experience of reopening
Covid-19 Reopening
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Staff clean an exhibit at the Natural History Museum prior to the venue's reopening in August
Staff clean an exhibit at the Natural History Museum prior to the venue's reopening in August Trustees of the Natural History Museum

When museums across the UK were given the go-ahead to reopen in July, they stepped out into a brave new world. No one knew quite what to expect. Would visitors feel confident enough to return, and how would the audience profile have changed? Had the shift to digital fundamentally transformed how people engage with museums? And how would the ever-changing Covid safety protocols work in practice?

Four months down the line and, for those institutions that have been in a position to reopen, the experience seems to have been largely positive. Although museums are operating at severely reduced capacity, many saw a high demand for booking slots over the summer holidays, particularly those in rural areas with lots of outdoor space. Feedback indicates that visitors feel safe and are enjoying a less-crowded and, in some cases, more-enriched experience than before, with more time to discover new objects and dwell on displays.

New insight

The experience of going digital during lockdown – and museum staff’s newfound awareness about the trials and tribulations of home schooling – has brought new insight into how museums can cater to children with different abilities and ways of learning. “We’ve sharpened up our online resources,” says Tony Butler, the chief executive of Derby Museums Trust. “There’s an expectation now that online is better and needs to be tailored for home schooling.”

Changes in visitor trends have perhaps been most pronounced at London’s national museums. Social distancing and staggered opening times have severely limited capacity, while overseas visitors – who accounted for about 60-70% of footfall – are negligible. Weekly figures released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport show that, in September, visitor numbers at sponsored museums were about 15% of their pre-lockdown average in the week, rising to about 25% at weekends (see box).

Proportion of national museums’ average visitor count prior to closure (DCMS figures for w/c 21 September)
Monday
11.3%
Tuesday
11.6%
Wednesday
15.3%
Thursday
14.7%
Friday
17.3%
Saturday
27.9%
Sunday
25.3%
Weekly total
19.2%

“We’re limited by our most popular spaces,” says Adam Farrar, the head of commercial and visitor experience at the Natural History Museum (NHM). “While the museum is huge, people tend to want to see the most popular areas – and we’re limited to the number of people you can get into those.”

Pre-booking is essential and demand is high, with all available slots booked up at the NHM in August and 95% in September. The museum also reports high rates of compliance with safety measures among visitors. “Most people wear masks and stay in their bubbles – we’ve had few issues,” says Farrar. “They are just delighted to be in the museum.”

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Visitors to the NHM have been positive about their experience, he adds. “Before the pandemic, there would have been long queues to get in,” says Farrar. “Now there’s much more room to see things – it’s almost a VIP type of experience. People are very happy with that.”

The NHM and other London nationals have seized on those benefits and are using them as a promotional tool. Audiences are primarily made up of people from across London and the south-east, says Farrar. “People are coming to visit us when not all of them normally would have done. Everyone is sort of discovering their local environment.”

Donations and secondary spend are also up at the NHM. Farrar believes this may be down to the less-crowded experience – and the higher proportion of domestic visitors. “People have an opportunity to donate digitally in their ticketing journey, then when they visit they often donate again.”

Farrar also believes the shift to digital will leave a lasting legacy. “Levels of digital engagement will only carry on increasing,” he says. “Some of our digital learning events attracted many more people than onsite – having a digital shadow of something happening physically onsite is here to stay.”

Higher profile

Another institution that has reported a big change in its visitor profile is Creswell Crags, the prehistoric cave system and museum in Derbyshire. “We’ve had loads of new visitors,” says Rebecca Morris-Buck, the museum’s communications manager. This has been helped by the museum’s focus on digital engagement during lockdown, which was swelled by the input of staff who would normally be working in other areas.

“We’ve always been on people’s list of things to do, but we struggled to convert that into visits,” says Morris-Buck. “Now people are saying: ‘I’m actually going to do it.’” She adds that the Test and Trace system has proved an invaluable opportunity to capture feedback from visitors as they enter. 

After reopening at the start of August, Amgueddfa-Cymru (National Museum Wales – NMW) experienced healthy numbers, with venues at 80-90% of their capacity during the summer holidays, falling to 60-70% when the schools reopened. Among visitors, satisfaction levels were high, with at least 95% saying they felt safe.

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Steph Mastoris, head of the National Waterfront Museum  in Swansea, says people are largely complying with safety measures. “There have been one or two individuals in tour parties who have been slightly more relaxed about the measures, but thankfully we haven’t had a vast number of refuseniks. There was an advantage in having a few months of lockdown, so the public had become used to bubbling and masks.”

However, a number of NMW sites had to go into a second lockdown just four-and-a-half weeks after reopening following a rise in Covid cases in several Welsh counties. And all museums and galleries in the nation have now been told to close for a two-week “firebreak” in an effort to prevent  a second wave of the virus.

The gardens at St Fagans museum near Cardiff remain open to local residents but the rest of the site has now had to close for another lockdown
Rolling lockdowns

“Staff were saddened because we were getting into the swing of the new normal, but everyone understands that it’s for the best,” says Mastoris. The institution has prepared for rolling lockdowns in the coming months and is now in a better position to adapt.

He says reopening should be more straightforward next time, as staff’s access to e-learning ensures the health and safety training they’ve had remains fresh, and protocols such as one-way systems are already in place. However, there is concern that if venues stay closed for long, the water supply systems will need to be tested for legionnaires’ disease, which could delay reopening.

Staff have got a huge boost out of seeing how much visitors have enjoyed returning to the museum. “People are lingering longer and appreciating the exhibits,” says Mastoris.

This is reflected in secondary spend – retail spend per head has been higher and donations are up 50% on last year. “We’re quite proud of ourselves” says Mastoris. “Our planning has worked and we’re pleased with the end result.”

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“Doing all of this has kept me and my colleagues sane,” he adds. “It’s an important job and we know there are real benefits to it.”

Visitors have been hugely positive, but generating income remains a challenge

Derby Museums Trust was one of the earliest institutions to reopen, welcoming visitors back to Derby Museum and Art Gallery on 7 July. Although reopening is a risky business – and many museums are uncertain about whether it is financially viable to do so just yet – the trust was keen to ensure its venues were a visible presence in the city as it emerged from lockdown. “We see ourselves in the vanguard of the recovery,” says the trust’s CEO Tony Butler.

Visitor figures are about 25-30% of normal, but people who come are spending more. Although some visitors have been hesitant to return, the trust has been encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from those who have made the trip.

But challenges remain. The trust generated much of its income from weddings, parties and functions, which – aside from a few socially distanced weddings, talks and lectures – have stopped. It is experimenting with new ideas, such as hosting clusters of six for afternoon tea.

Another area of museum activity that has fundamentally changed is learning and engagement. School visits are at a standstill across the UK, and museums are having to find new ways to keep the lines of communication open with teachers and children.

Derby’s Museum of Making, whose opening has been delayed until 2021, is hosting online sessions with teachers to help it develop a school curriculum. The trust has also repositioned its learning resources for an online audience and is considering sending educators into schools.

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