Museums, galleries and heritage organisations have expressed concerns to Museums Journal about the impact of the Omicron wave on their immediate and long-term sustainability.
Coming in the run-up to the crucial Christmas season, the surge of infections triggered by the new variant led to widespread event cancellations, staff shortages and low visitor numbers at many venues.
“In the run-up to Christmas we had so few people coming through the door it was not worth staying open,” one museum professional told us.
Another reported: “The impact of the last couple of years have really taken their toll and it is core collections-care work that is suffering as we focus most of our attention on encouraging visitors back through the door.”
Coupled with soaring inflation and council spending cuts, the year ahead is likely to bring unprecedented financial challenges for many.
The impact of Omicron
Latest updates from museums and sector bodies
Suzie Tucker, head of strategy and communications, National Museum Directors’ Council
“The majority of our members are anticipating a big financial impact due to the drop in visitor numbers as well as the loss of events and corporate hire income. There is some variation, with open-air museums still doing quite well over Christmas, but many of both our national and regional members saw between 50% and 100% of event bookings cancelled in December and January. Some have also reported that events for 2022 are not being booked and the number of enquiries about future bookings has dropped. The knock-on effect of all that will be huge.”
Independent museum, Wales
“Perhaps the biggest impact has been the fact the longer Covid-19 goes on for the longer it is taking for us to recover […] All funding and communications are up to March 2022. The impacts of Covid will go far beyond March for many museums, so there is real need for conversations about the sector’s recovery. We are having these conversations, putting in place a business plan, but we know to succeed we will need support to give us time to recover, adapt and carry out the work we need to do.”
National museum, Northern Ireland
“It’s a mixed picture for us but broadly positive. Our domestic market has proved very strong, and we have seen good numbers of new and lapsed visitors.”
Local authority museum and library service, Scotland
“[The] museum and art gallery was closed for a two-week period this year due to Covid and this means our income is reduced through sales, donations and commercial activities. We are usually open at Christmas – the other exception being 2020 – but we were running at about 60% of our pre-pandemic visitor figures, and then in the run-up to Christmas we had so few people coming through the door it was not worth staying open. This was despite having two popular exhibitions. Going forward, next year’s budget has a shortfall of £170,000. We have such a small team that there are no cuts left to make there. We rely heavily on fundraising through trusts and we are trying to improve our commercial activities and sponsorship opportunities.”
Military museum, England
“We have been down on day-to-day visitors from 2019 by 54%, but did have a very busy Christmas event weekend, which surprised us. Income has also been down by 38% compared to 2019, and we have noticed a reluctance to use our indoor cafe this year.”
Independent museum, England
“We certainly did see lower than anticipated figures and as we got closer to Christmas itself numbers just plummeted as people became very risk averse ahead of planned visits. So for general walk in visits in the week leading up to Christmas, we had an average of just 25 visitors each day – which is insanely low, and admittedly it jumped up to around 100 per day on 27-29 December once Christmas worries were out of the way. We also had to cancel events as the performers couldn’t attend and we had to cancel and refund revenues. We also lost shop sales.”
Local authority museum service, Scotland
“The funding will help, but the impact of the last couple of years have really taken their toll and it is core collections care work that is suffering as we focus most of our attention on encouraging visitors back through the door and reworking public programmes due to lockdowns and restrictions.”
Museums trust, England
“We were actually really busy during Christmas and new year, which I was really pleased to see. Before Christmas, a number of events were cancelled linked to hires and functions. We had quite a lot of Christmas parties booked in before Christmas. As soon as Omicron took hold and the advice from Government was very wishy washy, a lot of those events were cancelled. Some people wanted to postpone, and some wanted to cancel. It made everything less profitable and was quite stressful for the staff. The lack of clarity from the government’s approach to restrictions didn’t help.”
New emergency funding has been made available to organisations affected by this wave, with the Welsh Government announcing details this week of how grants from its Winder Stability Fund will be distributed (see box below).
While the latest rescue packages will provide welcome relief, there are calls for more long-term solutions to secure the future of the sector over the next few years.
Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association said: “We remain deeply concerned about the immediate finances of many museums across the UK. The impact of the ongoing Covid crisis and new restrictions across all four nations has led to a drop in visitor figures, cancellation of private hire bookings and planned events and a subsequent drop in income for many museums.
“Many museums were pinning their hopes on a busy and rewarding festive period and will be left with a significant hole in their finances going forward. The additional funding from government which was announced before Christmas will be a useful lifeline but more support and investment will be needed to secure the future of museums over the next couple of years as the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt.”
- The Museums, Crisis and Covid-19 research project by Ulster University is currently inviting museums, particularly those in Northern Ireland, to take part in a short survey, which closes on 2 February.
Emergency funding for culture and heritage
Latest support announced
The government has announced a £5.25m Cultural Winter Stability Fund, which will provide critical support for cultural organisations that have been and continue to be negatively affected by the impact of the pandemic and may be at serious risk of closure or job losses without further support.
The funding will be open to arts organisations, museums, libraries and independent cinemas, and will provide emergency funding, in the form of grants up to £100,000, for the period from 1 October to the end of March 2022.
Arts Council Wales will be administering the fund for the arts sector, and applications from independent local museums (Accredited and working towards Accreditation) will be administered by Welsh Government.
According to the latest government announcement, if your organisation has had cultural recovery funding in the past, you will receive a letter next week inviting you to self-declare your eligibility. There will also be a mechanism for those who did not receive cultural recovery funding to apply. More details are due to be announced next week.
The government has made a further £30m available and extended the application window for emergency funding through the Culture Recovery Fund to support museums, cinemas, theatres and heritage organisations through the impact of the Omicron variant this winter. Distributed by Arts Council England, the fund aims to provide emergency funding awards to organisations that were financially sustainable before Covid-19 but are now at imminent risk of failure.
Generally, grants of between £25,000 and £3m (£1m for for-profit organisations) are available.
Permission to apply requests must be made by midday on 18 January, and applications can be submitted until 4 February.
Details of a financial rescue package worth £65m for culture and major events have been confirmed by culture secretary Angus Robertson. The funding includes £10m for freelancers and £1.7m for museums, galleries and heritage.
Creative Scotland’s Cancellation Fund for Creative Freelancers opened for applications on 6 January.
Details of how the other funding will be distributed have not yet been confirmed.
In December, two funding strands for the heritage sector were announced as part of the Department for Communities’ wider Covid Recovery Programme.
Distributed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the funding will support organisations and individuals working in the heritage sector in Northern Ireland.
The Covid Recovery Programme for Heritage Organisations aims to reduce or remove heritage organisations’ financial operating deficits that have arisen as a result of the pandemic in the 2021-2022 financial year.
Grants from £2,000 up to £50,000 are available. In exceptional circumstances, grants of over £50,000 are also available. Applications close on 21 January.
The Covid Recovery Programme for Heritage Individuals will provide support to self-employed and freelance individuals working across the heritage sector. Grants of £2,000 are available and applications close on 28 January.