The latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, largely caused by the Omicron variant of the virus first detected in South Africa, has led to a spate of museum closures in the country. London has been at the epicentre of increased case numbers while the rest of the country has experienced an upturn in people contracting the disease. As such, it is London’s museums that have suffered most greatly from Omicron with staff going off sick and reduced visitor numbers. The timing for many of the capital’s cultural institutions could not be worse because it has coincided with the start of the Christmas school holidays, a traditional time for Londoners to make museum visits with their families.
Even before the Christmas holiday, the Natural History Museum announced that it would be closing its doors to the public. In a statement, the Kensington-based museum said that it would remain shut until 27th December at the earliest because of what it called an ‘unforeseen shortage in staff numbers’. The museum said that it had been forced to make ‘a difficult decision’ in light of the healthcare crisis. This was because so many of its public-facing employees had been impacted by the new Covid-19 variant following numerous infections and the consequent legal requirement to self-isolate.
Museum officials said that the plan would be to open the institution up to visits by members of the public on 28th December but that this could not be guaranteed. Instead, the reopening would only be possible if ‘staffing levels have recovered’ to a sufficient degree. Elsewhere in London, the museum sector also continued to suffer from the rise in infections. On 17th December, the Wellcome Collection, a free museum in Bloomsbury that focuses on the links between art and science, said that it would not admit members of the public until further notice. Again, the reason for this decision was given as a result of the surge of Covid cases in the capital. No date for the museum to reopen has yet been given although the institution’s website says that it will ‘continue to monitor’ the situation.
Not far away, in Saint Pancras, the Foundling Museum also announced that it would shut its doors until 4th January at the earliest. In addition, the management team of the National Army Museum, an institution that is located in Chelsea, took the decision to shut down over the Christmas period as a result of what it called the operational impact of Covid. Other London-based museums that have changed their usual opening times or decided to close temporarily because of the crisis include the Museum of the Home, Sir John Soane’s Museum and Camden Art Centre.
Most, although not all, of these institutions cited staff shortages for their closures as opposed to taking the decision to shut as a precautionary measure. In a statement it made available online, Sir John Soane’s Museum said that it felt it could ‘no longer staff the museum safely and effectively’ so would close temporarily. It hopes to reopen on 29th December, ‘circumstances allowing’. By contrast, the Museum of the Home said that it thought it would open on 4th January at the earliest.
Meanwhile, it was not just visitor attractions in London that appeared to be affected by the rise in the Omicron variant in the UK. Edinburgh Castle, one of the most visited attractions in Scotland, said that it would be forced to close temporarily in the run-up to Christmas. Making the announcement on Twitter, the castle’s managers said that an unspecified number of its staff members had tested positive for Covid. “All of the members of staff identified are now self-isolating,” the statement confirmed. The castle is now understood to be undergoing a deep clean process prior to any potential reopening in the New Year. In the meantime, all tours visits and other events at the castle have been cancelled.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.