The Florence Nightingale Museum in central London has become one of the first museums in the UK to announce its indefinite closure as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a statement this week, the independent museum confirmed that it is closing for the “foreseeable future” and will undergo a major restructure in order to safeguard its collections. A consultation on the restructure has begun with the museum’s 13 members of staff.
The institution said: “This review is designed to protect the museum’s collections and the institution for the long term. If changes are not made now, the museum will become financially insolvent before markets recover and visitors return in significant numbers.”
The museum, which is based in St Thomas’s Hospital and tells the story of Florence Nightingale and the history of nursing, is proposing to retain three posts to care for the collection and engage with the public while it is closed.
It hopes to continue allowing public access during this period, and is intending to run open days and school visits when it is possible to do so. It is also continuing to offer digital content during lockdown, and will take part in an upcoming digital festival on the medical history of the London Bridge area.
Director David Green told Museums Journal that the museum had been considering the possibility of indefinite closure since the early days of the crisis. It incurred financial losses after investing heavily in celebrations for the 2020 bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.
“Covid struck at the worst possible time for us,” Green said. “We invested in new kit and our new exhibition was in place for just three weeks before lockdown, but we have not had the return.”
The museum relies on visitors for around 95% of its income, but after reopening after lockdown last August, Green said it soon became clear that the venue would not be able to attract enough visitors during the pandemic to remain financially viable.
The loss of the museum’s international audience base – previously around 65% of its visitors – has been compounded by a reluctance among local visitors to come due to its hospital location and medical subject matter, and the fact that it is difficult to reach without using public transport.
The museum is in a small, poorly ventilated basement and also had to severely limit visitors numbers to ensure social distancing. It had been considering plans to relocate to a more suitable venue before Covid, and Green said this would be looked at as part of the restructure.
The museum has successfully applied for emergency funding from Arts Council England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Art Fund, but Green said any attempt to reopen in the coming months would just be “prolonging the inevitable”.
“There’s no evidence that we’re going to be anything like normal by June,” said Green. “The lockdown announced this week means we’re starting to feel really vindicated for taking a safety-first approach. We’ve spent 12 months rejuggling spreadsheets, now we need to get some headspace to see a way forward.”
It is anticipated that the closure period will last at least 18 months. “By then hopefully we will start to see the recovery, but it’s impossible to predict at the moment,” said Green.
The museum is due to recruit new trustees this year and Green said this would offer an opportunity to consider its long-term vision and explore how it can reinvent its business model for the post-Covid world.
The museum has received numerous messages of support from the international medical community since the closure was announced, said Green. “Although it’s is very painful, in a weird way I feel positive about the future as there’s such an interest in Nightingale and in nursing. But it’s just not clear yet how we get there.”