Q&A | ‘During times of crisis, culture becomes more important than ever’

Marja Sakari, director of Finland’s National Art Gallery, on what it's like to welcome visitors back through the doors after lockdown
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
Marja Sakari
Marja Sakari Photo By Jenni Nurminen
The Ateneum, the Finnish National Art Gallery, reopened to the public at the beginning of June after a lockdown of two and a half months. The gallery’s director, Marja Sakari, spoke to Museums Journal about how the Helsinki gallery has weathered the lockdown – and how it feels to welcome visitors through the doors once more. 
What are the key challenges you've dealt with during lockdown?
The museums closing in quick succession was a source of stress and worry for all of us at Ateneum. However, we’ve had a detailed risk analysis in place for several years, to equip us for all sorts of catastrophes. So we were prepared, but of course the pandemic was still a shock for the whole community and the museum was no different. We found the key challenges were employee-related: making sure that those who could, had the means to work remotely. Making sure that there was enough information and that all staff members had access to that information. The impact of the restrictions that went into effect on 17 March was so large that getting word to our visitors was not a problem – it seems like everything shut down in less than a week!
What kind of work was going on behind the scenes while the gallery was closed?
Some of our staff could not work from home, so the museum was not completely empty. We had full-time security, and staff including technicians, conservators and registrars were allowed to come to work, once measures for individual safety were made available: PPE and gloves, masks, hand sanitiser, etc. One of the behind-the-scenes tasks was to dismantle our Goncharova exhibition, which unfortunately would not reopen to the public. We have been in regular contact with the Finnish government and the Ministry of Education and Culture to ensure that we know what is expected from national institutions like ourselves. Initially the director general of the National Gallery had direct online information sessions with them through Microsoft Teams every other day. These sessions are still ongoing but now take place weekly. This gives all staff members a safe and direct line to ask the questions that have been on everyone’s mind: what do I do if I get sick? Can I come and get my computer from the museum? Have colleagues been ill due to covid-19? In the run up to reopening, we created a special exit committee in each museum, with key members of staff including the museum director, head of security, head of communications, the curator of our exhibition, Inspiration – Contemporary Art & Classics, and the head of customer relations team.
What kind of impact has this experience had on staff?
We closed the museum to the public on 17 March and everyone who could continue with their duties began working from home. Our income is reliant upon visitors and ticket sales, and being forced to make cuts that affected staff income and having to implement furloughs was devasting. We are lucky that in Finland we have quite a robust social security system and that social and trade unions have helped. We will also get support from the ministry to help with the losses accrued over the many months of lockdown. 
What safety measures did you put in place when you reopened? 
The Finnish government has set a maximum of 500 people for any public event until the end of July. This number includes museum staff. In addition, we can’t have more than 50 people in the same confined space, for example in one of the rooms in the exhibition galleries. Access points, staircases and corridors all pose challenges when implementing safety measures. With all that in mind, we developed the following guidelines:
  • In order to prevent queues at the information desk, a museum security guard is stationed at the entrance to guide and help visitors
  • We are asking visitors to respect social distancing rule (1.5m) and only people from the same household can visit in groups or use elevators
  • Our exhibition tour recommends that visitors keep to the right, walking in an anticlockwise direction and following a recommended route
  • We will not use any stickers for visitors and the tickets-sales procedure is made as safe as possible; there is plexiglass between the client and the customer service assistant. We only accept credit cards for payment, and the receipt serves as sales proof.
  • The museum guards are advised to use visors and/or masks as well as gloves, when they are working in the galleries, ticket sales or the museum shop. The Finnish government has not made the use of masks or visors obligatory. 
Prior to reopening and during the first week of opening, we held training sessions with the museum security, to explain how to act if certain situations arise, alongside advising staff of their rights when working with visitors in order to protect themselves.
Each team within the museum will go through regulations with their manager. 
How costly has it been to put these measures in place?
Acquiring enough hand sanitiser, gloves, masks and visors has been quite the ordeal, as the whole world is looking to buy the same items. The costs of these products has gone up dramatically. We are unable to quote them, but needless to say, the safety of our staff is our number one priority. If we wanted to open to the public – and we did – then we were willing to pay the price.
What kind of lessons could museums in the UK learn from your experience of reopening?
Information if obviously key. We’ve done a lot of work in keeping all of our employees up to speed on how things are progressing, when work starts, what safety measures have been implemented to keep them safe. We’ve found that art lovers have been avidly following our social media channels during lockdown. We’ve opened our doors with shorter opening hours, but we’ve had no problems with getting the information to our visitors – they’ve been very excited about finding the information they’ve all been waiting for! 
Do you think the pandemic has changed public attitudes to museums?
Very soon after the closure, we started to think about how we could maintain our relationship with our public. We had been thinking about the possibilities presented by the digital world before the pandemic, but of course this digital leap was realised under pressure. The Finnish broadcasting company YLE made some programmes documenting the exhibition of our permanent collection, which was really important because it enabled everyone to stay connected to the museum space virtually. We hope this will encourage art lovers to visit us again now that we are open.  
What have your visitor numbers been like?
As expected, since reopening the flow of visitors has been moderate. It was comforting to see the same rules apply; Saturday 6 June was rainy, so as always, visitor numbers went up. Finns have been careful during the gradual opening of museums, restaurants and event spaces, and we’re not expecting that to change quickly. All travel to and from Finland is still on hold for now, so the absence of international tourists will make a big dent in visitor numbers and we expect a decrease in overall visitor numbers by as much as 50%. 
How do you think museums themselves might change after the pandemic?
The drive by museums to maintain their relationships with the public was born out of necessity but the shift to online to bring collections to life in a meaningful way will stay. There are so many people all over the world who are now engaging with artworks in their own homes in new and creative ways, and it is something that really keeps museums alive.  
I think during times of crisis, culture becomes more important than ever before. It is a question of connecting and bringing relevance to life and understanding to its many twists and turns. Something I think that has come out of this is a spirit of collaboration and solidarity. We are all in the same boat and need to look out for each other.

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