University museums look beyond Covid crisis - Museums Association

University museums look beyond Covid crisis

Report finds institutions hit hard by pandemic but benefiting from new ways of working
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Simon Stephens
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Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

University museums have been battling with falling visitor numbers, reduced income and furloughed staff, according to a new report.

The Covid-19: Beyond the Crisis? report was published by the University Museums Group (UMG), which represents institutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In total, 28 museums and galleries took part in the study, representing 14 universities, 676 full-time equivalent employees (FTE) and 4.03 million visitors. The report follows a similar publication, Assessing the Impact of the Covid-19 Crisis on University Museums, published in May 2020.

Visitor numbers across responding organisations, as reported in April 2021, dropped to about 25% of pre-pandemic levels. And they fell from 4.03m in 2018-19 to 2.3m in 2019-20.

The Covid-19: Beyond the Crisis? report found that income has decreased since 2018-19 but a small increase is forecast by 2021-22.

The pandemic has hit self-generated and commercial income hard, falling from £6m in 2018-19 to an expected £2.1m in 2020-21.

UKRI funding for higher education museums, galleries and collections is expected to remain fairly stable, at £8m a year.

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For 2021-22, university and higher education investment and grants are expected to fall overall, as is private sector income and income from public sector grants. But self-generated and commercial income is forecast to increase.

All this has been happening against a background of staffing being affected by furlough and recruitment freezes. The impact has been heaviest on visitor services, collections care and technical roles.

University museums have also experienced mixed fortunes with digital technology during the pandemic.

The report found that the shift towards digital access has had some positive effects on research and teaching, and is most positively reported in public and community engagement.

But many university museums also reported a downturn in their ability to support research, particularly from researchers outside their own institutions. This has led to worries about how to provide digital alternatives to facilitate research, and concerns about resourcing on-site visits as restrictions are lifted.

Respondents to the report frequently referred to the need for training and skills around improving digital literacy and accessing information about monetising digital assets.

The introduction to the report, written by UMG’s co-chairs, Nicola Kalinsky, the director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, and Xa Sturgis, the director of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, stated: “This report shows the continued effects of the crisis on university museums, particularly around income, capital works, and research and teaching, but also brings into focus some of the benefits of new ways of working which has increased the geographical reach of our collections, and our teaching and research.

“The shift to digital has not been universally easy though, and members reported a need for skills training and knowledge sharing to spread these benefits across our sector.”

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