That was the year that was - Museums Association

That was the year that was

Looking back at a traumatic year in which museums were forced to rethink their fundamental purpose
Jonathan Knott
Aberdeen Art Gallery was one of the winners of the Art Fund Museum of the Year prize
Aberdeen Art Gallery was one of the winners of the Art Fund Museum of the Year prize Photo by Marc Atkins

At the start of 2020, UK museums were already braced for uncertainty, with a new Conservative government set on delivering Brexit. But the upheavals created by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic have taken the challenges the sector faces to another level.

The need for museums to close their doors in the spring lockdown made operating models obsolete overnight, and Covid-related disruptions continue to make the future financially precarious. But with calls to tackle environmental, social and racial injustice growing, many feel the sector’s future can be best secured through a renewed sense of collaboration and social purpose.

Many museums across the UK had yet to reopen when further lockdown measures were introduced in the autumn, and those that welcomed visitors back did so in drastically reduced numbers. Visits to DCMS-sponsored museums in September 2020 were less than 20% of their levels in the same month in 2019.

The government’s furlough scheme and £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund have helped, alongside other emergency support. But many organisations are still facing an uncertain future – particularly independent museums. An Art Fund report in May said that these appeared to have been the “hardest hit in the short term”. And research by Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) found that more than two-thirds of Scottish independents were not confident of surviving beyond a year without additional support.

There are also worries about the future of the UK’s town and city museums. Some local authorities and museum services – such as Glasgow Life, which manages 11 sites – have warned that budget deficits will make it difficult to continue their work. And in a joint statement in September, the Museums Association (MA), the English Civic Museums Network and the National Museum Directors’ Council said they were “extremely concerned about the recovery and ongoing sustainability of civic museums”.

Lucy Casot, the chief executive of MGS, told the Scottish parliament’s culture committee in September that “shared services or shared use of venues” could be possible alternative funding models. Tom Wilcox, a senior partner at the cultural consultancy Counterculture, agrees. He believes aggregation through shared services and partnerships can reduce overheads and support better collaboration.


But more fundamental change seems likely too. Wilcox says the pandemic has accelerated some societal trends such as the growth of digital media and flexible working patterns. He expects a significant adjustment in long-term museum business models and that few institutions will be able to avoid losing some staff.

This sobering outlook is borne out in the figures from the MA’s redundancy tracker, which had counted nearly 3,900 job losses by mid-November.But alongside their direct impact on staff and organisations, redundancies are leading to a questioning of the sector’s management and prevailing assumptions.

Tate was accused of using strike-breaking tactics, and a group of Southbank Centre employees wrote an open letter accusing the organisation of not honouring its redundancy policy. The group, Southbank SOS, also argued that the cuts were not merely a response to the pandemic, but “the culmination of an approach that has left the organisation bereft of creative vision and leadership”.

At the same time, there are growing calls for museums to act decisively on goals for which they have long expressed support. Errol Francis, the CEO of the culture and education charity Culture&, says it was impressive to see so many museums make statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that came to the fore in May.

But he worries that many of these “did not acknowledge the relationship between museums and colonial violence”, nor did they put forward a clear agenda for tackling the issues they highlighted. Francis highlights the Wellcome Collection’s statement as a strong response because it acknowledges “anti-blackness and racism”, structural inequality and its own privilege, and points to specific actions the organisation is taking.

Before Covid hit the UK, 2020 had also seen large museums making public commitments to environmental action. And in June, the charity Julie’s Bicycle wrote an open letter to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, calling for a “just and green cultural recovery” including measures such as aligning future funding with net-zero commitments.


As the pandemic continues to highlight inequalities, there are increasing pressures for the sector to take a fundamentally different approach. The MA’s manifesto for museum learning and engagement, published in November, says society’s current crises are “interrelated” and that arts and culture can play a central role in tackling them. It calls for museums to champion cultural democracy and social justice, taking “positive action to make the world a better place”.

Dhikshana Pering, one of the authors of the manifesto, describes it as a “call to action for the whole sector to see the importance of this work”, saying that the key message is: “We don’t just want words. What are you actually going to do for your community?”

The irony is that while learning and engagement teams have been leading on such approaches during the pandemic, they are now among those particularly fearing job cuts. Pering, who is the head of engagement and skills at Somerset House in London, believes that for the manifesto to succeed, it needs the support of leadership, resources and the retention of workforces.

With the sector facing continuing financial difficulties and no certainty about additional government support beyond March 2021, there are major challenges ahead. But not all recent developments have been negative. Widespread remote working and the scale of the crisis have encouraged more collaborative and open conversations both within and between organisations.

And there has been less emphasis on headline-grabbing projects in favour of smaller, community-focused efforts. In the digital sphere, for example, research by Museum Hack in the US found that global Google searches for “virtual museum tours” have steadily declined to a low level, after peaking in mid-March as lockdowns began. However, venues such as Tenby Museum and Art Gallery in Wales have found success using social media to collect material and engage audiences.

As 2021 begins, museums will be looking ahead with little certainty. But if they seize the opportunity to actively shape a new future, the current disruptions could lead to a more dynamic, collaborative and fairer sector.


Jonathan Knott is a freelance journalist

Key issues

The Scottish Maritime Museum is running flexible Shop to Shore workshops

Learning and engagement

After museums closed in spring, many moved their work supporting communities online. Some – such as Margate’s Turner Contemporary and Ely Museum in Cambridgeshire – worked with food banks to distribute materials; others created resources to assist with home learning.

As pupils returned to school, museums supported their learning both through Covid-compliant physical visits and online offers. Virtual classrooms on platforms such as Zoom have played a key role. And there has been a “huge appetite and enthusiasm” for creating other varied online resources such as videos and resource packs, says Rachel Tranter, the director of the Group for Education in Museums.

Tranter says the pandemic has driven progress in online learning, which is “definitely here to stay”. She sees the online offering as providing an alternative to physical engagement in future. Given the unpredictability of Covid restrictions, flexibility will also be crucial in the short term.

A versatile approach can be seen in the Scottish Maritime Museum’s Ship to Shore learning programme, which includes curriculum-linked workshops that can be delivered online or in schools. And Leeds Museums and Galleries has created 70 YouTube videos as well as running a loan box scheme.


The spring lockdown prompted many museums to ramp up their digital offering via social media, online exhibitions, talks and tours. But this rapid shift has exposed weaknesses in capacity and skills, says Counterculture’s Tom Wilcox.

He says that many institutions have poor online engagement, few digitised collections and “crumbling digital infrastructure and systems that don’t talk to each other”. Rectifying this could improve efficiency and help generate income through online retail and the monetising of intellectual property, but it will need investment, he says.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s (NLHF) Digital Skills for Heritage initiative is addressing this through schemes such as the Digital Heritage Lab, which provides mentoring and training to small and medium organisations.

Oliver Vicars-Harris, a digital cultural consultant and a mentor for the Digital Heritage Lab, says that the mad scramble to put content online is now giving way to a more considered approach. He says leaders are less likely to sideline digital work. “Suddenly, trying things out is okay, and failing is okay, because we’re learning.”

The statue of Edward Colston being recovered from Bristol harbour

Decolonising museums

Following the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol in June, there have been calls for others – such as the statue of Robert Geffrye outside London’s Museum of the Home – to be moved. But the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, warned that the government did not support such actions, implying that organisations that did not fall into line could lose funding.

Dowden has also criticised the National Trust’s research into colonial links at its properties. The research was published in a report in September that listed 93 trust properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that had connections to empire and slavery. They included Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire and Penrhyn Castle and Garden, in Gwynedd.

But Culture&’s Errol Francis says the idea of a culture war is designed to discredit legitimate debates and should be rejected. Instead, Culture&’s Black Lives Matter charter recommends actions such as editing racist artwork titles, starting restitution processes and commissioning diverse curators and artists.

Sandra Shakespeare, founder of the Black British Museum project, says action should also include changing museum policy laws that make repatriation difficult and protecting workers disproportionally affected by the pandemic. She says institutions actively addressing their colonial pasts include Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, Glasgow University, and Colchester and Ipswich Museums. “We cannot change colonial legacies, but we can make a commitment to dismantle systemic racism and the role the heritage sector plays in upholding its values.”


Increasing numbers of museum staff are being made redundant as institutions address losses in income. Organisations such as Tate’s commercial arm, Southbank Centre and the National Trust for Scotland have announced hundreds of job cuts, and the National Trust has made almost 1,300.

There are concerns that this will lead to a loss of expertise and may disproportionately impact black, Asian and minority ethnic staff. But organisations say that the cuts are necessary and that they are carrying out equality impact assessments to ensure fairness.

Christina Lister, the co-founder of the Museum Freelance Network, says freelancers have been severely impacted by the crisis, with many seeing an “overnight decimation” of income, and “huge swathes” excluded from the government’s self-employed income support scheme.

While the ongoing uncertainty may mean organisations using more short-term and freelance contracts, redundancies mean there is likely to be stiff competition for these. There are concerns that some freelancers may leave the sector, in many cases taking specialist knowledge with them.

More positively, Arts Council England has put extra emphasis on supporting individuals through its National Lottery Project grants and other schemes.

The big leadership news in the sector last year was Birmingham Museums Trust appointing Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint CEOs. This breaks new ground for the trust and the sector, as it is the first time the service will be led by a BAME person since it became a trust in 2012, and makes it one of just two organisations represented on the National Museum Directors’ Council to have BAME leadership. It is also one of the few instances of job-sharing at CEO level in the sector. The trust said the appointments were intended to cement its “commitment to representing the people of the city at all levels”.

Climate emergency

January 2020 saw high-profile environmental commitments, with London’s Natural History Museum declaring a planetary emergency and the city’s Horniman Museum and Gardens publishing a climate manifesto, which included the aim to be greenhouse gas neutral by 2040.

The pandemic, which forced the sector to focus on more immediate concerns, led to the UN’s COP26 climate conference being postponed until this November. It has also underlined the links between the environmental emergency and other global crises.

The greater focus on outdoor activities was an opportunity for museums to engage audiences with nature.

In May, Glasgow Women’s Library encouraged people to write birdsong haikus and share them on Twitter. And a project by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales with schools to investigate the impact of temperature on spring bulbs is ongoing this winter. Other initiatives include the Happy Museum’s workshops exploring how the sector can aid lasting change.

Prize winners

Museums Change Lives Awards

The awards, run by the Museums Association (MA), are now in their third year and the winners were announced at the MA Conference in November.

Art Fund Museum of the Year

Last year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year prize was run differently as a response to the pandemic. The prize money was increased to £200,000 and this was divided equally between five winners.Previously, the winner received £100,000 and the other four shortlisted museums were each given £10,000.

The five 2020 Museum of the Year winners were:

  • Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeenshire
  • Gairloch Museum, Ross-shire
  • Science Museum, London
  • South London Gallery
  • Towner Eastbourne, East Sussex

Volunteers for Museum Learning award

Youth ambassador Rose Byers was the national winner of the Volunteers for Museum Learning award. Byers, a singer and violinist as well as a pupil at Lockerbie Academy, Scotland, was recognised for her work at Ellisland Museum and Farm in Dumfries, the former home of Robert Burns.

She was one of 12 volunteers and volunteer groups from across the UK recognised by this year’s award, which celebrates the contribution that volunteers make to helping museums engage with visitors. The winners were announced in November by the British Museum and the Marsh Christian Trust.

Museums + Heritage Awards

The winners of the 15 categories in the Museums + Heritage Awards were announced in September. Highlights included:

  • Permanent Exhibition of the Year: English Heritage, Tintagel Castle Bridge & Landscape Project
  • Partnership of the Year: York Art Gallery and Kaiser Chiefs for When All is Quiet: Kaiser Chiefs in Conversation with York Art Gallery
  • Marketing and Communications Strategy of the Year: Imperial War Museum North Yemen: Inside a Crisis
  • Learning Programme of the Year: Leeds Museums and Galleries Careers for All
  • Limited Budget Project of the Year: Horniman Museum and Gardens Beat Plastic Pollution

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