Beefeaters at the Tower of London bid a final salute before pulling up the drawbridge to visitors. Image courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

Museums and galleries close as coronavirus emergency intensifies

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 17.03.2020
Government advice causes confusion as museums take matters into their own hands
Museums and galleries across the UK have been shutting their doors throughout the week after the central government announced stringent new measures aimed at tackling the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The Wellcome Collection was one of the first to announce its closure last week, and almost all institutions in London are now closed. Many more across the country are expected to follow suit this weekend. Most institutions say they will be closed until further notice; a number indicated that they would not reopen until at least 1 May.

The National Trust announced that it would close all of its buildings, shops and cafes, but would keep outdoor spaces open free of charge so people could use them during the crisis.

On 16 March, prime minister Boris Johnson introduced restrictions aimed at encouraging social distancing, warning the public to avoid non-essential contact with others and to work from home where possible. The government is advising all people over 70 and those under 70 with underlying health conditions to rigorously follow its social distancing advice in full.

On 19 March, Johnson announced in a press briefing that he believed the country could "turn the tide" on the outbreak in 12 weeks.

But the prime minister has so far stopped short of decreeing the closure of indoor public spaces, a decision that led to widespread confusion in the service, culture and leisure industries. The Museums Association (MA) released a statement earlier this week calling for greater clarity from the government.

It is expected that London, where infection rates of the virus are soaring, will go into lockdown at some point, with all organisations other than essential services ordered to shut.

In a press announcement this week, the chancellor Rishi Sunak said he would make £330bn available for businesses to stay afloat during the crisis, and extended the business rates holiday announced in the budget last week to all businesses in "retail, hospitality and leisure sectors" irrespective of rateable value.

Closures

Some culture professionals have called on any institutions that remain open to take matters into their own hands and close immediately to protect public health.

“Right now the critical, urgent thing museums can do to support the public good - in light of government guidelines for us all to do social distancing, slow spread - is close their doors,” tweeted Luanne Meehitiya, curator of science, zoology and pathology at University College London (UCL).

There are growing fears that the unprecedented shutdown will be a fatal blow to many museums, particularly independent institutions that rely on visitor income and do not receive government funding. The MA has called on the government to divert the £120m earmarked for the Festival of Britain 2022 to bail out museums in financial distress.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has called on the Department for Digtal, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and other cultural institutions to ensure all staff are fully paid during the crisis, regardless of their employment status.

PCS said in a statement: “We are contacting all employers with our demands in relation to paying contract zero-hours staff in all our sites as well as a letter to DCMS to demand the same and additional funding for the sector to ensure it can be afforded.

“Where institutions are closed, only staff required to deal with essential or emergency work should be required to work in order to comply with the government's request that only essential social contact and travel takes place.”

Museums and galleries are also shuttered across Europe and north America. But in a more hopeful sign, more than 180 museums in China reopened this week after a month-long closure as new coronavirus infections in the country fall.

The Chinese institutions are taking stringent precautionary measures to control the epidemic, including asking visitors to make online appointments, limiting visitor numbers, staggering visiting times, and monitoring people’s temperatures on entry.

Update
19.03.2020

This article was edited to include more up-to-date information.

Museums Journal is monitoring the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as it develops. Contact geraldine@museumsassociation.org in confidence to tell us how the crisis is affecting you or your organisation


Comments