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Musings from Museums in a time of COVID-19: Home and Away

Wandering around galleries, getting lost in centuries worth of art and culture, stumbling upon a breath-taking piece of art. All these moments seem a world away from the tumultuous present. However, the treatment of museums and galleries during the pandemic has varied significantly across the globe and as such, comparisons between what UK museums have faced and those on the continent can be made.

The cost of the pandemic – a UK perspective

For the Victoria & Albert Museum, the cost of the pandemic has hit hard. As a result of COVID-19, the museum must reduce its costs by at least £10m by 2023. Cost-cutting equals job losses, on top of the previous job cuts which have been taking place since September 2020, raising total cuts to 140 out of a workforce of 980. 

However, it is not just the workforce facing cuts as the very fabric of the museum itself is going to change. Historically, the V&A’s departments have been divided up into different types of materials but in a cost-cutting measure, three new cross-disciplinary, period-based departments  will be established.

This chopping and changing has occurred because the government grant-in-aid only covered 40% of the annual running costs. In normal circumstances, the countless exhibitions, events, merchandise, and sponsorship top up the V&A income. However, this is primarily dependant on visitors. Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, believes that the museum may not be back to pre-pandemic levels of visitors until 2024. In 2020, visitor numbers were down 80% and in 2021, the museum expects to attract just 25% of the annual footfall.

These disappointing statistics about the V&A are part of a broader picture of the state of museums in the UK: six in ten museums are worried about their survival because of the pandemic. Equally, there have been 4000 documented redundancies in the sector since the pandemic started.

Whilst many sectors in the UK are struggling with similar problems, the culture sector has frequently been overlooked. Furthermore, the severity of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that one of the most famous museums in the UK is struggling, let alone smaller museums and galleries. The damage to these museums and galleries may not be reversible and the clear lack of concern for these institutions shows that the damage may be permanent.

Springing into action – A German perspective

The looming cuts and inevitable job losses of the UK are a very different picture from the one in Germany. From 8th March, museums in most parts of Germany were allowed to open. The strategy is tied to the rate of COVID-19 in the individual regions: in regions where the cases are below 100 per 100,000, museums are allowed to open and in regions where the rate of cases is between 50-100 per 100,000, visitors will be asked to book a time slot and supply their contact information.

This is an unusual step because during the first lockdown, museums in Germany were the last ones to reopen. Now, they are amongst the first to reopen in the second lockdown – ahead of restaurants, theatres and indoor sport facilities which will not reopen before 22nd March. Comparatively, in the UK museums can reopen on the 17th May at the earliest.

This German approach of balancing out what can open and when is interesting because it has allowed different sectors to benefit from the reopenings; a policy which has not been translated in the UK. It will also be a hard pill for UK museums to swallow when their counterparts across the pond will be reopening.

Final thoughts

Whilst there is no definitive or correct answer for how to help museums, the comparison between the treatment of museums home and away has shown that whilst the struggles may be the same, the prioritisation has been fundamentally different. Does balancing out who reopens after different lockdowns really help sectors who have been put to the back of the queue? This still remains to be seen. However, the struggles of museums, home and away will continue until the day when going to a gallery or visiting a historical site on a whim is done without a thought. But, until that day, we must support our museums across the globe in the best perceived way.

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