Keeping the wolf from the door - Museums Association

Keeping the wolf from the door

Deprived of admissions revenue, many small museums are surviving only because they have secured funding
Covid-19 Small Museums
Jonathan Knott
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Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre will not reopen until at least the spring, as many of its volunteers have been shielding or were uncomfortable working alongside visitors
Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre will not reopen until at least the spring, as many of its volunteers have been shielding or were uncomfortable working alongside visitors

This article was written before the current national lockdown

Lincolnshire’s Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre – a volunteer-run Accredited museum – had been due to open for its 2020 season at the end of March. But the lockdown and subsequent Covid-19 restrictions mean it will now remain closed until at least this spring.

Caterina Scott, a trustee and the museum’s curator, says most of its volunteers are retired. Many were either shielding or felt uncomfortable about working alongside visitors. The situation has left the venue without any admissions revenue, which was its main source of income, and used to cover essential costs such as electricity and insurance. Since 2019, the museum has charged £3 to adults for entry and typically receives 3,000 to 5,000 visitors annually.

A £10,000 small-business grant from the local council has allowed it to “keep the wolf from the door” this year, says Scott. But if the visitor centre is unable to open or secure similar funding next year, Scott says “we would be worried”.

Claire Browne, the chair of the UK-wide Museum Development Network (MDN) and manager of the Museum Development East Midlands (MDEM) programme, says many small and medium-sized museums are facing challenges.

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Increasingly disconnected

About half of the museums the MDN works with are run by volunteers. The longer these stay closed, the more they risk becoming isconnected from their audiences and volunteer base, making it harder for them to reopen and to care for their buildings and collections. There are also fears for the future of many local authority museums, which are anxiously awaiting councils’ budgeting decisions for 2021-22. Independent museums – particularly those reliant on large events or corporate hire for income – are facing financially precarious situations too.

Many of these institutions have found it difficult to access funding arising from the UK government’s £1.57bn emergency support package for culture. Some lack the capacity and expertise to make applications – particularly with staff on furlough – and the minimum grant of £50,000 for Arts Council England’s (ACE) Culture Recovery Fund is more than many venues need.

Early responses to a new “health check” survey of some English museums that have sought support from the MDN suggest there have been significant differences in responses to the pandemic. The survey, which has evolved from regionally run schemes, asks museums to reflect on their performance in six key areas: governance and leadership; financial planning and resources; people development and management; working practices; audiences; and collections.

The research has found that some institutions appear to be in “paralysis and survival mode” because of the sheer uncertainty of the crisis, says Browne. Others have taken the opportunity to reflect on their aims and try fresh approaches, such as engaging with new audiences or expanding their digital work. (The pandemic has also spurred some museums into doing more contingency planning for future crises.)

Browne says the museums that have responded proactively are likely to be those with “dynamic individuals and strong boards”. On the other hand, some organisations with trustees who have been in place a long time without reviewing or refreshing the skills in their teams seem to have been overwhelmed.

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She believes that for many smaller museums, recruiting new and more diverse trustees is a “really critical issue that has come to a head”.

During its closure, Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre has worked with the MDEM to review its governance by clarifying volunteer roles and responsibilities. This has led to “more professionalism”, according to Scott, and the recruitment of additional volunteers, such as a fundraising officer who joined in November.

It has also bolstered its focus on social media and online retail, which took off during lockdown, generating thousands of pounds worth of sales and larger-than-usual donations.

Social media

The museum has used Zoom and WhatsApp to keep volunteers engaged. Some have worked from home on a photography digitisation project in partnership with the University of Lincoln and the International Bomber Command Centre, while others returned to the site to redecorate and rearrange exhibition spaces. The museum hopes to reopen in March, but this depends on restrictions, and it would need funds to buy protective equipment such as screens.

Mindful of the challenges facing many organisations, last summer the Art Fund unveiled a £1.5m programme to help support museums through the pandemic. A wide range of organisations has received a Respond and Reimagine grant, including the Foundling Museum, London; Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth; Wycombe Museum; and the Novium Museum, Chichester.

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The High Mill at Verdant Works, part of the Industrial Museums Scotland group

The Art Fund has also teamed up with the MDN to fund programmes of recovery grants of up to £10,000 for smaller museums, and those that have not yet received public funding. More than 200 museums across the UK have received funding for purposes such as support for reopening safely, engaging audiences online and working digitally with collections.

Ongoing support such as this will be vital if museums are to continue to survive the many ongoing financial challenges that they face as a result of the pandemic.

A financial tightrope

With museums using their reserves to survive, the hardship is set to continue for many

Support available to smaller museums in Scotland includes a £4m fund for independent museums announced in August, administered by Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS).

David Mann, the chair of Industrial Museums Scotland (a group of 14 independent museums), says that this, and other emergency funding programmes, have been crucial. But he warns that the MGS fund has received applications for three times the available amount.

As many museums are using their reserves to survive this year, and with reduced income likely to continue into 2021, Mann says the sector could remain financially precarious into next winter. He says Industrial Museums Scotland is lobbying for further government support for the next financial year, and believes this may be needed in 2022-23 as well.

Sinead McCartan, the director of the Northern Ireland Museums Council, says Covid-19 restrictions have “shown where the pressure points are” for some smaller museums that don’t have the resources or knowledge to develop their digital offer, and will need more support to do this.

But she says the pandemic has prompted innovation from some institutions, such as contemporary collecting programmes and new ways of engaging audiences online.

McCartan highlights the Whitehead Railway Museum, in County Antrim, which connected more with families during the spring lockdown. Previously, its core audience had tended to be older and male. This change was reflected in bookings once the museum reopened in July.

McCartan believes that despite the continuing uncertainty, there are exciting opportunities for renewal. “I can see a shift from recovery to resetting and re-engaging with audiences,” she says.

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