Auchindrain Township is one of the museums anticipating a crisis by the end of the summer

Independent museums in Scotland call for urgent rescue package

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 06.05.2020
Half of independents say they will be in financial crisis by the end of summer
Scotland’s independent museums have warned that the Covid-19 crisis is having a “devastating impact”, with some saying they face permanent closure within months.

A number of groups representing the independent sector have issued warnings in recent weeks about the plight they are facing as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, which has wiped out revenue during the sector’s peak trading season.

In a joint statement last week, Industrial Museums Scotland, Museum Heritage Highland (MHH) and the Scottish Community Heritage Alliance called for “an urgent intervention by major funders if closures and redundancies are to be avoided”.  The loss of heritage institutions would “destroy public trust and be felt keenly by the communities around each museum”, they said. 

The stakeholders warn that, with reserves rapidly depleting, half of independent museums are anticipating crisis before the end of the summer. These include Dundee Heritage Trust, which runs Discovery Point and Verdant Works, Auchindrain Township, the Museum of Lead Mining and Almond Valley Heritage Trust. Some have already been forced to liquidate assets to cover their short-term costs, they said.

“[We] believe a financial relief package would be minimal in terms of the wider crisis funding but would be hugely beneficial to Scotland’s heritage and its communities,” the statement continued.

In a separate statement, MHH, which was set up last year as an independent charity to advocate for museums in the Highlands, said many of its members have started to dip into vital reserves to carry them through the summer.

It said: “For most museums, any reserves that they have managed to build are a result of an extremely creative and entrepreneurial approach in reaction to the substantial cuts from public funding over the past decade. The expectation that they could further apply efficiency savings or cuts to staffing costs is unfeasible.”

“Our costs aren’t massive but without immediate income coming in, reserves will very quickly diminish,” said MHH chair Dan Cottam, who manages Grantown Museum and Heritage Trust. “Reserves will see us through the summer months but after that things start to look more drastic… It will be a zero-income year even if we do reopen again.”

Furloughing employees has also come with consequences, said MHH. Some institutions have struggled to apply for emergency funding offered by bodies such as Museums Galleries Scotland because they have furloughed their only member of staff; others are missing out on the opportunities for online engagement that the lockdown has brought. 

At Grantown, development work for future seasons has stopped because staff are furloughed, Cottam said: “Our future planning and future initiatives have come to a halt. The development work that we would normally be doing for next year is at a standstill.”

MHH also warned that institutions in the region – many of which are volunteer-led – will also face a staffing crisis in the medium term.

The charity said there is “huge concern” among its members about the future of volunteering. Curators are worried about the wellbeing of their volunteers during the lockdown itself as they have lost vital social support networks, said MHH’s development manager Helen Avenall.

She said there is also concern that volunteers, many of whom are in vulnerable groups, will not return after the lockdown, either out of choice or because it would be unsafe to allow them to do so.

This could mean some museums will not have the capacity to reopen, and will also have a knock-on effect on areas like fundraising, events and other income-generating activities, in which volunteers often play a vital role.

Financial losses related to volunteering will be more difficult to assess, said Avenall. “Other organisations are able to quantify their losses more tangibly. Here it’s more of a slide, which is more dangerous in a way because it can go unnoticed.”

MHH has called on funders and policy-makers to take the looming crisis in volunteering into account in any rescue package they offer.

However, Avenall said the lockdown had brought some positive changes, particularly for museum staff in remote, rural areas, who have benefited from the abrupt transition to remote working and video conferences. “We’ve had some get-togethers with our peers, which doesn’t happen very often with some of our members. Our strength and unity has definitely grown.”

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