A financial crisis is looming for many museums and galleries as they grapple with the soaring cost of energy bills and supplies on top of falling visitor income.
As Museums Journal reported earlier in August, some institutions will pay more than four times as much for heating and electricity this winter, with further hikes due in January.
The cost of energy on the global market is so volatile that some energy companies have reportedly stopped offering contracts of even six months or less to businesses.
“The uncertainty means we are having to revisit and adapt plans every month,” says Carolyn Ayers, estates and conservation manager at the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust in south London, which is facing an increase of almost 400%. “These are scary times.”
The trust, which operates a historic building, Charlton House, and a newly built collections store, is trying to cut down on its energy consumption but faces unavoidable costs. “People don’t understand that these museum stores are state of the art,” says Ayers. “Our air handling unit is at a set temperature and it’s got to keep going, we can’t not run it. That’s a lot of energy consumption on storage alone.”
Meanwhile, the trust’s Grade I-listed historic house requires a lot of energy to heat. “It only has two temperatures – hot or cold,” says Ayers. She believes some restrictions must be relaxed to make it quicker and easier for listed buildings to become more energy efficient.
Like other museums, the trust is keen to provide a “warm haven” this winter to help people in fuel poverty – but this will be in doubt if it cannot cover its own costs. “We do a lot in the community,” says Ayers. “People will want to come to us because they can’t afford to heat their own homes.”
Museum sector bodies are urgently calling for government support similar to the Covid rescue package to enable them to cover the unprecedented cost increases, and many institutions are working together to find solutions.
“One consolation is that we’re not alone,” says Ayers. “One of the best things about museums is that we do work together, we’re not in competition – but at the moment no-one has come up with any realistic ideas. The sector really does need government support.”
Fuel bills are not the only cost affecting museums. According to an update from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva), all attractions are reporting the effects of the cost-of-living crisis.
Alva says: “Those attractions in rural areas are seeing clear evidence of a fall in the number of visitors coming by car, especially families, due to the rise of fuel prices.”
Although some attractions that are free to enter are benefiting from increased visitors, donations are down an average of 20% compared to 2021. Meanwhile the price of building materials has increased by 150% since last summer, which has had a significant effect on capital projects, ongoing restoration requirements and facilities management.
Alva says: “All attractions mentioned the effects that the cost-of-living crisis and inflation are having on their supply chains, significantly in food and beverage. The significant difficulty in recruiting for food and beverage roles plus the inability to purchase the full range of products means that for many attractions, not only are they having to reduce the opening hours of their catering facilities, or often close them, but also reduce the range of the menu too, potentially affecting the visitor experience and the likelihood for visitors to return.”
Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy manager, says: “Without additional government intervention, organisations will have to make difficult decisions about whether to close for the winter, cut opening hours, or cut other areas of activity simply in order to afford their energy bills.
“We want to see concerted action from government – as we saw during the Covid crisis – to help reduce the sudden shock of these huge bills.”