Museum Reopening will be a Slow Process

Chair of the National Museum Directors' Council, Sir Ian Blatchford, has today written an article for the Telegraph outlining the "slow process" of museum reopening. 

Please see below for the content of the article, published May 20th 2020.

Museums will recover – but it will be a slow process

The major museums I represent across the country, as chairman of the National Museum Directors’ Council and chief executive of the Science Museum Group of five museums including London’s Science Museum, receive a staggering 85 million visits each year. And I know from the huge increase in digital traffic right now (for example, we’ve had a fourfold leap in interest in the educational sections of our site – a trend that is likely to be reflected sector wide) that legions of children and families want us back in their lives.

The museum teams long for that too. We thrive on social gathering, inclusion and the excitement of some of the greatest art and science collections in the world.

Visiting the Science Museum last week, it felt as silent and forlorn as Miss Havisham’s mansion in Great Expectations.

The Government has trailed the possibility of museums reopening from July 4, but do not expect many of our national and regional museums to be racing towards it with undue haste. Our sector is not looking at the date in the Government’s conditional plan as a target. Our path to reopening will be guided by two things: the safety of our visitors and staff, and financial sustainability.

Museums have a vast and vital role to play in the UK’s recovery, but first they must survive. For some museums, reopening too soon could be financially perverse since there won’t be the visitor numbers to sustain the additional costs of being open. For others, not opening before the summer is over could prove problematic too – many smaller museums need to open more quickly to at least give them some chance of income.

My own group has museums in London, Manchester, York, Bradford and Shildon, in County Durham, and so local contexts will be vital. That means considering public transport, regional infection rates, the status of major university complexes in which some of them are sited, and the planning and tourism plans of each city and town.

There will certainly not be one grand opening date, but a series of considered stages, reflecting joint thinking and planning, and also learning from our sister institutions around the world, some of whom are a little further along the track: France, for example, is already trialling opening the smaller museums before the larger ones, so we shall observe how those fare. The German model of heavily subsidising their museums is in sharp contrast to the American, where institutions receive scant government support: the British is a mix of both, so we can learn from each country but need to develop bespoke solutions.

You can expect the opening process to begin in July and run into autumn and beyond.

For my own museum group, for example, the National Railway Museum in York, which has a car park and can accommodate a lot of cycle racks, may well open before the Science Museum in London. It also has the outdoor space for people to sit and eat their own food, because so many visitors come in family groups and having something to eat is all part of the day out.

The team in York is also looking at whether introducing aisles would be a good way of allowing visitors to explore its wondrous locos in safety.

And among the biggest museums in London we could see a significant gap between the first and last to reopen. Early indications suggest that Tate may be among the early museums to open, but even there, August seems most likely.

Visitors returning to familiar institutions such as the British Museum and the Natural History Museum can expect a slightly different experience.

Some museums, including the V&A and Science Museum, are exploring the idea of free, timed ticketing to ensure a relaxed visit and to instil confidence that social distancing is in place. It would be quite a shift to our business models that would need to be tested with smaller numbers of public visitors.

Then there’s the question of where to place protective screens and where not to, once you’ve overcome the challenge of getting hold of them. It’s not just about ticket desks and catering outlets, museums are needing to consider how we ensure people can deal with the call of nature in a safe way.

Much has been written already about the wonderful way the public is engaging with culture during the lockdown. But I’d like to focus on what we have to offer once we do reopen and why it’s vital that our museums, small and large, receive enough support to survive.

The pandemic has underscored the importance of wellbeing and community – and our museums have an enormous role to play in promoting both when it is safe for people to share once more in our nation’s thriving, vibrant and diverse cultural life. It is a fact recognised by Boris Johnson in one of his first speeches as Prime Minister, at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, when he named culture as one of his four priorities and described cultural venues as “the gathering places that give a community its life”.

Museums will also be vital in the wider economic recovery of the UK as the lifeblood of a tourism industry that generated more than £150  billion to our GDP last year and supports 3.3 million jobs. Culture is the number one driver for inbound tourism to the UK – and museums are at the top of the list of cultural experiences visitors are coming for.

But for the time being, our doors must remain closed as we continue to care for the nation’s heritage, and to collect the objects that will help future generations to understand this extraordinary period.

My own museums are researching the stories and objects that will help us to explore the medical and scientific responses to the outbreak and to chronicle its wider impacts on our society and culture.

Our most recent acquisition, from No 10, is the “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” lectern message that was beamed into homes nightly for many weeks.

But rest assured our time to reopen will come, and we will be relying on centuries of experience of caring for our visitors to ensure our museums remain as welcoming as ever when that moment arrives.

Originally published May 20th 2020 by the Telegraph.