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Culture, coronavirus and the future of UK museums

As some UK museums prepare to reopen their doors, what does the future look like for cultural institutions in the immediate future?

Recent reports have painted a fairly grim picture for some cultural institutions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the UK, calls for emergency Government funding for Britain’s performing arts sector, which is facing a “cultural catastrophe”, include letters signed by the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James McAvoy, Tom Stoppard, Wendell Pierce, Andrew Scott, Sharron D Clarke and almost a hundred more. 70% of UK theatres are warning they’ll face financial ruin by the end of the year, and 70% of theatre jobs are also at risk. In total, ticket sales have dropped by an estimated 80% due to social distancing.

Parthenon Galleries

But is this level of disaster mirrored in the museum space, or has the coronavirus pandemic had a different impact on the world’s most beloved havens for history and art? As “non-essential” leisure and tourism premises begin to open their doors, what can we say about the impact of COVID-19 on our most cherished institutions. And will the ‘new normal’ still represent a rich museum experience?

The impact of coronavirus on museums

Like theatres, many museums have struggled with the unprecedented circumstances brought about by COVID-19, facing forced closures and severely reduced visitor numbers.

The global impact of coronavirus on museums is difficult to summarise, but the NEMO survey gathered information from over 650 museums in 41 countries in an attempt to paint a picture of how these cultural institutions have been affected. The report reads:

“The majority of museums in Europe and around the globe are closed. Closing doors to the public results in a drastic loss of income for many museums.

“While some museums have found their budget minimally impacted as of yet, some museums, especially the larger museums and the museums in touristic areas, have reported a loss of income of 75-80%, with weekly losses adding up to hundreds of thousands of Euros.”

This no doubt marks a significant period of hardship for museums, but is it all doom and gloom, or is there an opportunity here to create stronger bonds between museum and visitor?

The new normal: building bridges

As some museums reopen their doors to the public, they will no doubt face an adjustment period which will involve stringent social distancing measures and regulations.

So far, museums have been quick and proactive in their response to the pandemic, with many switching focus to helping their communities. In Amsterdam, conservators at the Rijksmuseum, as well as the Stedelijk, made headlines by donating face masks and gloves to front-line medical workers. Similarly, in April more than 40 UK museums and conservators donated personal protective equipment to help the NHS fight the coronavirus.

Other museums have taken more cultural approaches, sharing stories of people impacted by the virus in order to preserve and learn from this moment. Through the hashtag #MuseumsThankHealthHeroes, many institutions took part in an online campaign to share medical-themed artworks from their collection as a way of saluting doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers.

In many ways, this can be seen as the start of a new relationship between museums and their communities: a stronger bond built on mutual respect and admiration. While previously, museums may have felt distanced from their communities, they have now proven themselves to be at one with their public, facing similar trials and getting through them together.

A slow return to normal

This difficult time has provided museums with many hardships, but also with several opportunities, including the chance to build trust and strong bonds with their public. By helping those most in need, museums have cemented themselves as both worthy and necessary, showcasing strong values. As institutions work to find their feet following COVID-19, it is hoped that this support may be reciprocated.

During this period of isolation, museums have used technology to showcase what visitors have been missing. This time has highlighted, more than anything else, that the ‘digital museum’ is not a distant promise, but a reality for the here and now. Digital engagement and cultural heritage have been paramount to museums in the past few weeks, bringing people together, encouraging creativity, sharing stories and offers a virtual space to build ideas.

Countless museums around the world have used this time to innovate, putting in the effort to make their collections available to explore on a digital platform. From the Art Basel Hong Kong fair being held online for the first time, to the Musée Paul Valéry in Sète creating a YouTube channel for its recent exhibitions.

Not only has this kept engagement alive between museum and visitor, but it also demonstrates another way in which museums have thought about the needs and desires of their communities and fans, making art and culture accessible to those who are likely missing it.

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic marks a difficult period in the history of museums. Adapting to this crisis has been an unprecedented challenge for cultural institutions around the world.

However, ironically, this period of distance has also brought museums and their supporters closer than ever before. While the doors of our favourite museums have been shut, the importance of art and culture has truly come into focus.

International Cultural Advisor Damien Helly arguably said it best, highlighting the importance of culture in times of crisis in suitably poetic terms:

“Culture is like the seeds of herbs and flowers that will sprout and cover dreadful ruins with their blossom. Culture returns hope to people, and gives a chance to their injured souls to escape their nightmares, resentment, and vengeance.”

When all else is gone, art remains. How many of us could say we would not have found lockdown almost unbearable without art, books, music, television, films and culture?

For museums and their visitors, it may be that distance has made the heart grow fonder. Art and culture allow us to make sense of the world around us, and following times of such chaos, we may see people flocking to museums in search of answers.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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