Two reports released this month have given an insight into the state of the museum sector as it emerges from the pandemic.
In the third of its annual surveys on the impact of Covid, Art Fund found that some of the alarm about the future of the sector in the early days of Covid had subsided.
The survey garnered 212 responses from museum directors across the UK, as well as conducting a number of more in-depth interviews with national and university museums, and focus groups with independent and local authority services.
This year’s survey found that respondents’ fears about the long-term survival of their institutions had fallen, with 4% reporting that they were extremely concerned about this issue, down from 9% in 2021.
The research found that income and footfall are starting to rebound. Last year’s research found that income had fallen to 38% of pre-Covid levels on average, while visitor numbers were just a quarter of what they had been in 2019-20. These figures had risen to 68% and 61% respectively in the latest survey.
The report shows how vital emergency funding has been to the sector’s survival, with 84% of respondents availing of government rescue grants. But the sector’s financial model is fragile, with 35% of respondents saying they will be operating with a new deficit in 2022-23.
The cost of living crisis is a growing concern, with several respondents raising fears about the rocketing cost of fuel and utilities, as well as impending public funding cuts.
“Commercial income has recovered faster than expected, but we’re uncertain about sustaining this, and increasingly concerned about rising costs,” said one respondent.
The survey shows how the overstretched museum workforce has suffered during the pandemic, with an increasing number of organisations – 57% – reporting staff facing mental health challenges. Recruitment is also an issue; 59% of respondents said they have fewer volunteers and 44% are having difficulty recruiting. Redundancy rates remain high, affecting 28% of responding organisations.
The pandemic has upended working practices and new models appear to be embedded; 43% of respondents have introduced hybrid working permanently, and 38% have created new types of roles.
Museums are “now in a position to think beyond mere survival”, says Art Fund director of programmes and policy, Sarah Philp, in her foreword, with upward trends in visitors and income. But she warned that this “isn’t the full story”.
“The pandemic caused an existential crisis for the sector, and the emergency funding that saved many museums camouflaged an underlying financial fragility, with yearly cuts to staff and services meaning that many museums were already struggling to maintain buildings, retain expert staff and provide services for their communities,” said Philp.
“And looking ahead, the cost of living crisis will be a huge challenge to museums’ operations, their staff and their audiences. With emergency funding no longer available, the true impact of past cuts and future losses will be felt sharply and deeply.”
The second report, from the Centre for Cultural Value, sets out 12 recommendations for policy-makers to support the rebuilding of the UK’s creative and cultural sectors.
Based on the findings of the centre’s Culture in Crisis survey, which was published in February, the recommendations include a call for a UK-wide strategy to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in the sectors, as well as commissioning further research into the role of the sector in meeting local socio-economic needs, and establishing a “culture forum” that would empower communities to set the creative and cultural priorities in their area.
Museums Association (MA) director Sharon Heal said: “These two reports provide a detailed and stark snapshot of the state of the sector as we, hopefully, emerge from the pandemic.
“On the plus side visitors are returning and financial support from government has enabled museums to reopen and reengage with communities. On the downside the pandemic has exposed the financial fragility of many institutions and has led to a loss of capacity and expertise and has had a severe impact on the stress and anxiety levels of the remaining workforce.
“At the MA we will continue to make the case for follow-on recovery funding for the sector and for new funding models for local museums. We will provide new wellbeing resources so that we can look after ourselves whilst we support community recovery and wellbeing. And we will also provide the space and platforms, through our events and conference, to look at the challenges and opportunities that we now face.
“The legacy of Covid for museums needs to be a rethinking of our purpose: how we connect to communities; the services we provide to society; and space that we can provide for recovery and healing.”