Mission To Save Londons Smallest Museums Curators On How Independent Museums Are Responding To The Pandemic

Mission to save London’s smallest museums: Curators on how independent museums are responding to the pandemic

This article was first published by the Evening Standard https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/independent-museums-london-coronavirus-a4433886.html

Every week since lockdown began, Celine Luppo McDaid and her husband have conducted an inspection of the Dr Johnson’s House museum behind Fleet Street. McDaid is the live-in curator of the museum, dedicated to 18th-century lexicographer and literary giant Samuel Johnson.

“The museum survived two world wars, which sets a precedent for surviving a crisis like Covid,” McDaid says. In the Second World War the curator and her daughter set up an art group and ran a canteen for the fire service, who used it as a watchtower during the Blitz (it was the tallest building in the area). The museum had contingency plans for terrorism, fires, floods and prolonged closure, but McDaid says “we never imagined it’d be for anything like this”.

Dr Johnson’s House is one of the UK’s 1,600 independent museums, all of which face an uncertain future. Andrew Lovett, chairman of the Association of Independent Museums, says: “I fear without further government support there might be a Darwinian cull of the sector and a lot of job losses. Some museums have reasonable reserves, for about three months, but they are burning through them. It’s generally an advantage for independent museums to not be a draw on the taxpayer. Yet that means they are desperately exposed.”

Today’s news that the furloughing scheme is to wind down from July is another blow. Lovett says it’s been “a lifeline for independent museums”. Even those who are looking ahead are painfully aware that when they do re­open it will be at a reduced capacity. More than half of the visitors to Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn, for example, are from abroad, but it’s estimated that it will take five years for air travel to get back to 2019 levels. The endangered Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital receives 98 per cent of its income from visitors, and 82 per cent of heritage organisations have reported a risk to long-term ­viability.

Independent museums rely on admission income and secondary spending, through shop and café money, to survive, “and of course that’s collapsed”, says Lovett. “The conundrum is trying to grapple with what the next 12 months look like. I can’t imagine attendance and trade will be sufficient for a long while, and many won’t have the money to get over that lean time. Recruitment is on hold, some museums might have to become seasonal, some museums will be lost.”

Sir John Soane’s director Bruce Boucher says: “After this ends there will be a shortfall. We won’t just spring to life, we need assistance.” Caroline Worthington, director of the Royal Society of Sculptors says: “Small museums have had the rug pulled from under their feet; it’s highlighting many issues for them. We must think about what we want our cultural landscape to look like in the future.”

Independent museums contributed £730 million to the economy last year. They provide over 8,900 jobs, not including indirect roles such as cleaning, and attract at least 24 million visitors a year. The worst-case scenario would be closure or selling off collections to fund a future. Those in the sector compare this idea to Russia selling art to buy tractors after the Revolution, which it has always regretted. “Selling off collections is the spectre looming,” says Lovett. “It is the worst possible time to sell things, and a slippery slope, it may erode the trust of people who have donated.”

The Horniman Museum has kept its grounds open, with gardeners still working. It has so far lost £60,000 and faces a £260,000 deficit if it closes for longer. Nick Merriman, its CEO, says: “We lose money every month we are not open. We are expecting as much as a 50 per cent drop in visitors because people will worry about travel and have less to spend, and we’re looking ahead to three years of crisis. Our funders recognise that the model isn’t constant growth but a sustainable future, about inclusivity and quality of experience rather than quantity of people.”

A lot depends on who owns the land museums are on and how flexible they are willing to be. There is support available, and Lovett says culture minister Caroline Dinenage “gets it”. She speaks to the National Museums Directors’ Council weekly. The National Lottery’s Heritage Fund is still funding 2,500 projects at £1.1 billion and issuing emergency grants of £3,000 to £50,000. Merriman adds that culture can’t be thought of as a block — the concerns facing museums are different to those facing theatres or concert venues. Small museums are going to be the first to open in France. “Museums are more like supermarkets in terms of how you go around them,” he says,

“It’s good to have a challenge,” says Boucher. “It makes us think about what we are doing, how to do it effectively and who our audience is. We’re working on digital programmes for an international audience and a local one.” The Explore Soane section of their website uses 3D to allow a virtual visit (useful for home schooling). Current exhibition, Langlands & Bell: Degrees of Truth, is online. If the museum opens in autumn, the exhibition will be extended. There have been requests for booking photoshoots and private events later in the year.

Leighton House, which is funded by Kensington and Chelsea council, is also expanding its online projects. It was closed for renovation until January, and that has just been allowed to proceed, so they are using this as a chance to plan the future. More digital development “can only be a good thing”, says McDaid. “We’re reaching people with our website who wouldn’t have been able to travel to the museum ­anyway, and kids learning at home. I think Dr Johnson would have been saddened to see the suffering of this pandemic; he was sociable so he would have been troubled by social distancing, but I like to think liberation from other obligations would have been a chance for him to read. He’d have posted book tips on Twitter.”

Larger institutions are showing solidarity. Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, says: “The entire museum sector is being hit hard. Smaller, independent museums dependent upon visitor revenue are in danger of closing forever. These museums are often more closely connected to their communities, provide valuable work experience and entry-level curatorial jobs, preserve vital heritage.”

Tate works closely with museums across the UK, through Plus Tate, the British Art Network. Helen Legg, director of Tate Liverpool, says: “It’s of critical importance that the UK maintains a diverse museums sector if it is to tell the many stories that make up our shared culture. Smaller museums tend to be embedded in their communities and staff have specialist knowledge. Many of our regional museums have world-class holdings and play a crucial role supporting artists. Most people’s first museum visit will have been with their local one; they play a vital role in a first, formative connection culture.”

Lovett sums up their mission: “Museums provide you with an opportunity to have a better understanding of yourself and your place in the world. You can only live your life forwards but only understand it by looking backwards to see patterns of behaviour. The best museums are social places — experiences are better when they are shared. They must endure.”

ICOM UK