Stanislav Chegleev / Getty Images / WIRED
The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts has been a part of London’s cultural scene since 1769: in the last 250 years, it had never been cancelled. But when museums and other institutions around the UK went into lockdown in March, 2020 became the year that finally put an end to that streak.
This hiatus could soon be over, after prime minister Boris Johnson gave the green light for museums, galleries and many other places in England to reopen on July 4, as long as they maintained social distancing and other practices. Some museums are planning to bring in one-way routes through a room, and will encourage people to wear masks inside (front of house workers and invigilators will be wearing masks and in some cases, gloves).
But no two museums, art galleries or spaces are alike. “You have to understand what [the guidance] means for your collection, your venue, your buildings,“ says Melanie Lewis, the director of commercial and business development at the National Museums Liverpool. “We had to look at which venues would be the most accessible for local visitors, as every museum has got a very different collection.” The National Museums Liverpool group has seven buildings across the city. Only two of them, the World Museum and the Walker Art Gallery, are currently scheduled to open in July, with enhanced cleaning protocols, online booking, no interactive displays, and for the moment, no school trips either.
At Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge – a historic house and a traditional gallery space – the plan is to impose a limit of two households (of three people each) in a room. In the house, there are no labels on the artwork – instead, visitors will still have to ask staff members for information on a Henry Moore or Joan Miró (both of which are in the house), which brings the number up to seven, and sometimes eight people in a room. “We have to assume people’s level of common sense, but there will be posters dotted around with clear information, and there will have to be a sense of mutual responsibility,” explains Andrew Nairne, the director of Kettle’s Yard. “But there’s also a challenge of pace because people do have to keep moving.”
Some difficulties seem to be fairly standard across the industry – for example, most organisations project footfall to drop by 30 per cent compared to regular visitor numbers. But the mounting costs were entirely unanticipated. “Some people are describing it as three winters in a row. At the beginning of the pandemic, people didn’t really appreciate all of these costs – and now, you’ll be spending a huge amount more for fewer people, with less money coming in,” explains Marilyn Stroll, the vice chair of the Association of Independent Museums. “Our business is people, and so the whole issue of social distancing presents a challenge. Everyone has to bring in screens, signage, hand sanitiser, face coverings, increasing their staff.”
A catch-22 has emerged for many museums. While independent museums (often run by volunteers) want people to come back, operating costs and fewer visitors means that it just might not be financially viable to open for the time being. Independent museums also rely heavily on commercial income – such as gift shops, cafes, admission and venue hire. With those still heavily impacted, many independent museums may be forced to stay closed for the moment. Owen Gower, who works at Edward Jenner House (the historic home of Edward Jenner, widely known as the inventor of the smallpox vaccine) in Gloucestershire, explains that while a crowdfunding campaign to cover the house’s costs for this year was successful, it still doesn’t make sense to reopen right away. “Dr Jenner’s House, like many museums around the country, has suffered from a lack of significant and sustained investment in recent years and until that is readily available, our financial situation will always be precarious,” he says.
Whether museums can survive another lockdown – particularly if the furlough scheme is tapered off in October – is uncertain. Museums and collections which have been commercially successful may have been the hardest hit by the closures, and heritage and arts bodies have warned that some will inevitably have to close if there isn’t a long term plan to keep them afloat from the government or other arts organisations. The head of the Mary Rose collection, a world renowned art collection of artefacts from Henry VIII’s excavated boat, has suggested that precious artefacts from the collection may need to be auctioned off to raise the money necessary to keep lights on.
On their websites, most museums and galleries have new exhibitions planned for the fall – the RA’s Summer Exhibition has been moved, optimistically, to autumn 2020. But the Association for Leading Visitor Attractions found in a survey that only 16 per cent of people surveyed said that they would visit a gallery or museum after they re-open, and 29 per cent said they would be “unlikely to want to visit for a long time”.
While the Arts Council and National Lottery Heritage Fund stepped in with some emergency funding, and the government rolled out a furlough scheme, there remains very little indication of what is to come for the cultural sector, which is projected to lose about £74 billion in revenue due to the coronavirus crisis. The sector wasn’t in great shape before then. For the last decade, many galleries and museums in the UK have had to become more reliant on philanthropy and big corporate client events, which have dried up in the last months. “Lots of our donor stewardship is done with in-person events or meetings, so it’s been a challenge to cultivate and retain strong relationships – we’ve responded by trying to utilise digital technologies in innovative ways, bringing our supporters exclusive virtual events,” says Susie*, who works as an administrator in the development department of a national museum in London.
Many museums and galleries rely on income from venue hire – where people can rent out space for a wedding, a film shoot – which is still effectively impossible, at least at the scale where it’s financially beneficial. Coldplay did a leg of their 2019 tour at the Natural History Museum, while The Raphael Gallery at the V&A in London can be hired for a wedding reception, starting at £14,500 for the night. Events like these – where attendees number in the hundreds – are unlikely to be taking place for the foreseeable future, and even when they do begin to happen again, no one knows if a museum will be the kind of expensive venue that people want to book.
Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, points out that the gallery has had no income for close to four months. “We receive roughly a third [of the gallery’s funding] from the government, a third we earn from ticket sales, the bookshop, restaurants, donations from artists and publishing houses, all of which has been on hold, and then we raise a third,” says Blazwick. “There are a lot of trusts and foundations which we would normally turn to, but they’ve been deluged with so many requests that they can barely cope.”
For museum workers – and volunteers – there are other sets of challenges as a result of re-opening. ArtFund ran a survey of over 400 professionals in the museum sector – 80 per cent of independent and national museums have furloughed some or all of their staff. While invigilators and FOH workers will be wearing masks, gloves and performing enhanced cleaning regimes in many spaces, questions about vulnerability and safety are still paramount, particularly as workers in the museum and arts sector are often precariously employed on zero-hours contracts.
“Until there is a vaccine and tourism returns to its pre-Covid levels I can’t see how our museum will be able to operate in the same way it did before,” says Susie. “The whole gallery experience of contemplation and solace will be disrupted to some extent by the ‘one-way’ routes.”
Museums are responding to this challenge in a few different ways. Even the exhibitions which are now opening can play a role in the experience of the gallery for visitors – Blazwick points out that the new Whitechapel exhibition, called Radical Figures, features massive canvases which people can spread out while looking at. ‘Blockbuster’ exhibitions – huge, usually ticketed exhibitions on well-known artists, – are a massive source of income for museums and galleries. Can a museum afford to spend a huge sum leasing a Picasso – only for it to sit in storage in a second lockdown? Difficulties around shipping from international museums, as well as the cost, may mean that organisations turn inward to their local areas or to pieces already in their collection.
For the 16 per cent of people who say they would go back to museums and galleries when they reopen, this situation presents a rare opportunity – to take your eyes off a screen after four months, and look at the real thing, whether it’s a Constantin Brancusi sculpture or a Steve McQueen film. “People can come and have this direct experience of art,” says Blazwick. “There’s all these sleeping artworks which are just waiting to be reawakened by the public.”
*Some names have been changed
More great stories from WIRED
🦆 Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back
💰 The Animal Crossing fans running in-game businesses
🤑 Inside the ‘bullshit’ get-rich-quick world of dropshipping
🎵 The secret behind the success of Apple’s AirPods
🔒 The UK’s lockdown rules, explained
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.