It felt rather surreal hearing the Museum of London’s announcement that it had secured planning approval for its ambitious £300 million new home in West Smithfield. Over the last few months, we in the museum sector have become so used to contemplating the desperate situation we face that this ray of good news appeared to come from a completely different time.
Coincidentally – or maybe not? – on the same time day the Prime Minister said that museums will, along with pubs, hotels and hairdressers, be allowed to reopen from 4 July, with London’s National Gallery leading the way. This was unexpected news for a sector that had assumed it would be at the end of the queue for reopening. Despite the huge contribution it makes to the economy, culture has become used to being treated by successive governments as an expendable luxury.
If there was any doubt beforehand, lockdown has made it very clear just how important culture is to society. Absence does, in fact make the heart grow fonder, leaving us yearning for culture in all its forms. This is not just because we miss watching a play, listening to live music or looking at a great work of art – although we certainly do – but because these are experiences we share with others. Visiting museums is no exception. They are places where we come together as people and a city – something we are profoundly missing right now.
From a philosophical point of view, a museum without visitors isn’t a museum at all – a point that is backed up by the financial realties museums face. Unless they have a source of external funding, they live or die by footfall. Put simply, visitors are money. This is even the case when entry is free, as it is for our national museums, where so-called “secondary spend” in the café or bookshop, or on memberships, donations and the like, is even more important.
So when museums were forced to shut in mid-March, every single one was plunged into dire financial straits. They are classic examples of organisations that are asset-rich (very) but cash-poor. Those museums lucky enough to have some government or local authority income have been able to fall back on that. But even for them, the government furlough scheme has been a lifeline, without which they simply would not have survived. I’ve heard of some museums putting almost their entire staff on furlough, save for a very overworked social media manager.
But while salaries form a very significant part of a museums’ financial outgoings, they aren’t the only one. There are some staff, such as security, that you absolutely can’t be without. Like any business, a museum needs to be able to keep the lights on and run and maintain the complex and often old environmental conditioning systems required to keep their artworks at a stable temperature and humidity level. Support to help with some of these basic costs has been available from the Arts Council, which has provided 10,000 grants across the cultural sector, but this initiative is small scale and short term.
Given all of this, museums must be celebrating the fact they can reopen so soon, right? Actually, many will be thinking that their problems are only just beginning. Firstly, reopening is contingent on being able to enforce social distancing. Even with distance being reduced from two metres to “one metre plus”, this is a significant logistical challenge. Some museums, especially the smaller ones, will find meeting it all but impossible. For them, the tradeoff will be significantly reduced visitor numbers.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that the numbers of people visiting museums will match what they were before the lockdown. They are keen to get back to normality as soon as they can – and visiting museums is part of that – but also nervous, especially of travelling by public transport. Then there are tourists, which make up a big proportion of many Central London museums’ visitor numbers. It’s going to take a long time for tourism to reach pre-pandemic levels, if it ever does.
A fundamental problem is that opening a museum room or gallery to the public requires the same number of staff for one visitor as it does for 100 or even 1,000 over the course of a day. In short, there are fixed costs that a museum has to bear simply by opening the doors. And right now museums across the capital will be frantically trying to work out what number of visitors per day they will need to offset these costs and break even. Because if they don’t hit that level it will be financially more ruinous to open than to remain closed.
This is similar to the problem pubs, bars, restaurants and any operation reliant on footfall will face. The difference is that museums can’t put out a bare bones team to save money. You can’t reasonably ask a guard looking after one gallery to look after the one next to it and the one next to that as well. In any case, in normal times museums will have already squeezed the number of staff they need to open to the absolute minimum. To do so further will put the visitor and the collection at risk.
One of the upsides of the lockdown for museums has been the acceleration of the shift to online programmes, whether these are virtual exhibition tours, DIY family activities or things like the #GettyMuseumChallenge, where people recreate famous artworks using household objects. While these initiatives have allowed museums to reach and build audiences in new ways, they don’t bring in income. Even if this innovation points to a new paradigm for museums, they will discover, as newspapers have before them, that making money online is extremely challenging.
While the reopening of museums appears to herald a possible inching back towards business as usual, the realities these institutions will face over the coming months and years will likely be very different. As for the Museum of London, which boldly claims its new building will “redefine what it means to be a 21st century museum for London”, I wonder if, given the new realties we are now facing, they will find themselves having to think again.
Owen Hopkins was until recently senior curator of exhibitions and education at Sir John Soane’s Museum and before that was Architecture Programme Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts. He is now Director of the Farrell Centre at Newcastle University. Follow Owen on Twitter.
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