Temperatures are reaching dangerous levels in some museums and galleries as the UK provisionally records its hottest-ever day.
Staff in a number of institutions have warned of hazardous working conditions due to the unprecedented heat.
Workers at one London museum sent evidence of temperatures reaching 35C in the museum’s glass-fronted reception area, far exceeding the recommended working temperature of 30C. Museums Journal has approached the institution in question for a response.
A source from the museum queried why staff had been obliged to go to work during a red weather warning. “It would be discouraged for staff and visitors to travel in extreme weather such as a snow storm or hurricane – I don’t see how extreme heat is any different,” said the staff member.
“Some of the back-of-house spaces are cooler so some local staff are more ok with attending the workplace as it might be cooler than their own home, but predominantly all the front-of-house spaces are incredibly hot, making the extreme weather a much higher risk for them.”
The heatwave is also causing damage to collections. “Some of our objects in the collections, like the wax objects, are melting. Some of the glue holding things together is unsticking,” said the staff member.
Unions are urging museums to rethink their policies on dealing with extreme heat.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union yesterday called on the British Museum to consider closing for the remainder of the heatwave to protect staff and visitors, warning of high indoor temperatures and poor indoor air quality.
The union said: “PCS has raised ongoing concerns with the British Museum regarding poor indoor air quality. We recently wrote to the museum asking them to sign up to the Independent SAGE safety pledge, however they have refused.
“As a world famous major tourist attraction, more should be done to improve the visitor experience and staff safety. Our members receive complaints on a daily basis from visitors about the poor indoor air quality, humidity, heat and occupancy levels.”
A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “The safety and security of staff, visitors, and the collection is the British Museum’s first priority.
“Due to the Red National Severe Weather Warning, the museum will close early at 15.00 BST on Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 July.
“During opening hours, we will also temporarily close some of the upper levels of the museum to ensure the comfort and safety of staff and visitors. The museum remains open and also accessible online and we plan to return to normal opening on Wednesday 20 July.
“We continue to monitor the situation and measures we have in place and will take any further actions necessary.”
The extreme weather has led to the widespread cancellation of school visits, with the timing of the heatwave in the final week of term in England and Wales leaving teachers unable to reschedule their trips to autumn.
Many institutions are working to support their local communities. “We’ve sent messages out on social media about the cool free to enter spaces we have for some respite from the heat,” says Victoria Reeves, chief executive of Nottingham’s National Justice Museum. The museum is planning to do more to reach those without access to digital messaging.
The London Museum of Water & Steam has invited locals to come to the museum to cool down for free. It is also refilling water bottles for those who need to top up.
The Museum of Homelessness has urged museums to consider what they can do to help people experiencing homelessness during periods of extreme heat.
The record-breaking temperatures have highlighted the urgent need for museums to adapt to more frequent extreme weather events.
Ben Melham, director of building consultancy firm Mortice Consulting, told Museums Journal: “A key risk which is being highlighted by the current situation is the need for museums and galleries to respond to a changing climate in their forward planning.
“All new development and upgrades of buildings and infrastructure needs to respond to both the current challenges and the forecast climatic conditions in 10, 20 or 30 years.”
Melham said institutions will also need to develop “dynamic operating solutions”.
“The many closures of buildings and galleries we are currently seeing will become the norm in periods of heat,” he said.
An analysis of climate adaptation in museums and heritage will be in the upcoming climate special issue of Museums Journal, out in September