Coronavirus: how will it affect museums and what can be done to mitigate the impact?
Geraldine Kendall Adams, 10.03.2020
Sector stakeholders have met government officials to discuss crisis
The Museums Association (MA) is among the museum stakeholders that met the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport this week to outline the impact that the novel coronavirus pandemic is likely to have on the museum, gallery and heritage sectors.
The spread of Covid-19 has already hit visitor numbers and income. There have been significant drops in overseas group bookings, while some museums, particularly those with older audiences, are reporting falls in domestic footfall. The demise of the airline Flybe last week, which is partly blamed on the pandemic, is likely to have an added impact on visitor numbers in cities such as Inverness and Belfast.
Some countries are taking unprecedented steps to prevent the spread of the virus. All of Italy is under lockdown, while public institutions in other European countries such as Ireland and Denmark are closing.
The situation in the UK is evolving rapidly and although it is not yet clear whether the government here will take such drastic measures to contain the outbreak, the museum sector is bracing itself for major impacts to workforce, visitor numbers and income.
MA director Sharon Heal said: “This is a difficult time for everyone that works in museums and our communities. The MA is supporting our members and the wider sector by discussing with government, sector funders and other bodies what form the best advice and support might take. We have surveyed our members and we know that many are already taking the correct precautionary measures to protect staff, volunteers and visitors.
“The bigger issue will be the medium and long-term impact if travel restrictions are applied and public gatherings banned. Many museums operate with tight financial margins and even a few weeks loss of income could seriously undermine their business models. We would appeal to government and funders to provide financial support and emergency funding for institutions that are effected by the epidemic; and also ask funders to operate flexibility in terms of delivery of currently funded projects.”
In the coming weeks the MA is planning to discuss these impacts with government agencies and sector bodies in the devolved nations. Museums Galleries Scotland is currently liaising with other cultural leaders and the Scottish government, and intends to publish guidance shortly. Museums in Wales have also been in touch with the Welsh government about the crisis.
Based on the feedback the MA has received from museum professionals across the UK, these are some of the ways in which the sector might be affected, and measures that museums are taking to mitigate the impact:
Illness and absence
Some museums highlighted the potential risk to front-of-house and volunteers getting sick due to their contact with visitors. The Front-of-House (FoH) network writes on Twitter: “Museums and other organisations must be supporting their workforce. Those on zero-hour contracts and others vulnerable if they are ill. #FoHMuseums are arguably at greatest risk because of regular contact with public, they need to be sure they are safe and supported by management.”
Staff and volunteers taking time off could lead to under-staffing and potential shutdowns. Many museums have an older volunteer pool and are already seeing an impact on their volunteer numbers.
Increased remote working
Many museum staff are already being encouraged to work from home where possible to mitigate the impact on projects. However, this is more feasible for back-of-house roles. Some museums are reviewing IT systems to assess how they can keep things running if staff need to work from home.
In this week's budget, the UK government announced a package of measures designed to help businesses and workers cover the cost of illness. Statutory sick pay will apply from the first day of self-isolation in order to discourage people from coming to work while sick. The government will cover two weeks' sick pay for small- to medium-sized businesses and will accept sick notes provided by NHS 111 rather than a GP. Claiming Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance will be made easier for people who are not eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.
Loss of pay
There is concern that staff, particularly front-of-house workers and others on casual contracts, will be at risk of losing pay as a result of short notice museum closures. In this week's budget, the government confirmed that self-employed people in financial distress may be eligible for support from HMRC with their tax affairs, while local authorities have been given a £500m fund to help people facing financial hardship.
As public spaces where large crowds of people gather, museums are sites that could contribute to the spread of the virus. Many institutions are taking precautionary measures to reduce this risk and encourage visitors to engage in good sanitary practices.
Government advice is for people to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds every time before eating. Some museums are taking steps to encourage staff and visitors to do this in their public cafes and restrooms. Some have installed additional handwash and hand sanitiser dispensers in public areas.
Museums have an important role in providing free, accessible public toilets and handwashing facilities, but this also could create a strain on resources.
Many museums are exploring more effective ways to clean and disinfect their galleries and equipment. Some professionals are seeking further advice from manufacturers on how to clean and disinfect touchscreens and interactives without causing damage.
It is also important for museums to be seen to be taking action by signposting to visitors the measures that have been put in place. Precautions being considered by some museums include removing audioguides, hands-on objects and exhibits, ceasing object handling activities and closing play areas. Additional support or funding should be made available for deep cleaning.
Self-isolation and social distancing are key measures to prevent the spread of the virus. This could have a significant effect on many areas of museum work, as well as on revenue.
At present, the UK government is not saying public spaces should close – but museums could be forced to shut completely at some point. Visitor numbers are likely to fall regardless as people increasingly avoid public spaces.
Outreach programming, particularly for older people, is likely to be affected. Museums will need to consider how to balance the risk to people’s health if sessions go ahead, against the impact that cancelling such programmes may have on the wellbeing of people who are already socially and geographically isolated.
Museums are considering other ways to reach visitors, including online engagement.
Loss of income from falling visitor numbers and prolonged closure could pose a serious problem for museums, particular for smaller, independent institutions that rely heavily on revenue from visitors.
The closure of schools and cancellation of school trips may also result in loss of income. Many learning services rely on schools income rather than core funding to cover their staff wages and workshop costs.
The UK government has pledged a fiscal stimulus of £12bn to keep the economy afloat during the crisis. This includes temporary tax waivers for businesses in financial distress, as well as covering two weeks' sick pay for small- to medium-sized businesses. Properties with a rateable value of £51,000 and under will not have to pay any business rates this year.
A number of bodies representing the charitable sector have written to the chancellor asking the government to provide support to not-for-profit, social enterprise and charity organisations left out of pocket or facing cashflow problems as a result of the outbreak.
The letter calls for an emergency fund for charities facing insolvency and for the charitable sector to be included in any economic stimulus packages or measures offered to the business sector.
Grants and funding
There are calls for funding bodies such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund to offer flexibility regarding the timescale and requirements for grant-funded projects, including funding drawdown, reporting and evaluation.
Loans, exhibitions and travel
Museums in other affected countries have already seen the postponement or cancellation of exhibitions due to travel restrictions and difficulty in transporting objects. The epidemic is likely to impact decisions of museums to loan objects either in or out, especially of objects that require couriers. Staff may need to find last-minute replacements for displays.
Some museums are restricting international travel of staff. This could have a financial impact on budgets that are already stretched, as well as affecting organisational relationships.
Some museums have warned of the reputational risk if a site is identified as the source of an infection, or if the museum is seen to have taken inadequate or inappropriate action. At least one museum has already had to shut down false rumours on social media related to its response to the coronavirus.
Content and collections
There may be opportunities for museums to use their collections and stories for public health information. Military museums and museums with local history collections are likely to have Spanish Flu collections that could be used to shed light on the current epidemic, and likewise there is potential for science and medical collections to be used in this way. Collections could also be used to demonstrate how communities can support each other in times of crisis.
Some museums are already engaged in contemporary collecting to capture the story of the outbreak.
This article was edited to include new information following the government's budget announcement.