Written evidence submitted by Museums Association, National Museum Directors’ Council, Association of Independent Museums, Art Fund, The Heritage Alliance, the National Trust, the English Civic Museums Network and the University Museums Group
Joint Response to DCMS Committee Call for Evidence on the Impact of Covid 19 – 6th May 2020
This is a joint response to the DCMS Committee from the Museums Association, National Museum Directors’ Council, Association of Independent Museums, Art Fund, The Heritage Alliance, the National Trust, the English Civic Museums Network and the University Museums Group. Between us, we represent the entire museums sector in the UK as well as a large number of publicly accessible heritage sites. Our joint response does not preclude any of these individual organisations from also submitting supplementary evidence to the committee, but summarises key views that are commonly held across the museum sector.
All museums in the UK are currently closed to visitors due to the lockdown. This lockdown has had a number of extremely serious effects:
The UK-wide measures set out by the Chancellor have had a mixed impact in supporting the sector:
The principal long-term impact of the crisis on the sector is to its financial health. As noted above, we expect some independent museums to become insolvent due to the crisis, leading to permanent closure, significant down-sizing or long and expensive efforts to re-establish organisations from zero. Closure may result in the sale of museum collections and the loss of collections hitherto held in public trust, or the transfer of collections to already over-stretched national and local authority museum services.
For those museums that survive this crisis, many will have exhausted their financial reserves and will need to work hard over a number of years to rebuild to a position of financial resilience. Staff costs are the greatest expense for museums (typically 60%) therefore jobs will be at risk when costs need to be found.
National, local authority and university museums which are less at risk of insolvency during the initial stage of the coronavirus crisis are nevertheless greatly concerned about their future finances. They have lost significant amounts of earned income due to the lockdown; and they are extremely concerned about the possibility of another period of public sector austerity in the aftermath of the crisis – having already made significant changes and reductions in their service levels during the past decade of austerity.
The sector urgently needs large scale grant funding to survive the period after lockdown in order to cope with a longer-term reduction in visitor numbers, philanthropy, international collaborations and other sources of income. We propose a Renewal and Resilience Fund which supports museums to adapt to these new circumstances. Major sector funding bodies should also consider immediately increasing some existing grants where projects are under threat; in particular, major building projects that will now go over budget / deadline should be supported for completion with urgency. If not, some museums that would have survived financially will be put at risk by escalating costs.
Reopening museums will clearly be subject to government advice and wider advice on the end of lockdown.
Government advice on reopening and relaxation of social distancing measures needs to be very clear. Considerable care must be taken to ensure that museums are allowed to reopen at the right time as a stop start opening could be more catastrophic than staying closed for longer. In that context, we believe that museums should be allowed to reopen as soon as it is reasonable and safe to do so, and we note that museums would be able to control numbers of visitors in order to promote continued social distancing within their sites and buildings.
However, it is vital that museums continue to receive support beyond the end of the lockdown. On reopening, museums will immediately start to incur costs of operation but without the return of income from ticketing, commercial income and philanthropy which will take longer to bounce back. Depending on the scale of the reopening, whether this differs regionally and how many people can be permitted to sites, how quickly other functions get up and running such as events, catering and other commercial activities museum will be likely operating at a loss for some time.
This is particularly the case if museums are expected to reopen during low season, when many will not have the funds to continue. There is a real risk that if all government support schemes (furloughing etc.) are withdrawn immediately, independent museums will face a second financial crisis due to missing out on peak season. It is therefore vital that government should not end the furloughing scheme abruptly at the end of lockdown. Instead, we propose that the government should stagger the ending of the scheme over a period of months for employees in those sectors that are particularly at risk of a second crisis at the end of lockdown.
In addition, there are practical concerns around reopening, particularly around temporary exhibitions and events which generate substantial income for many museums. No museums will be able to reopen with temporary exhibitions immediately after lockdown due to the inability to agree and put into place loans and marketing. The UK is also very likely to be ‘out of sync’ with other countries. The lending and borrowing ecology is hugely dependent on international counterparts and it is likely that the delay to the UK’s reopening will put future projects at risk as certain exhibitions become unfeasible due to other international or national commitments of objects. Museums often plan years ahead, therefore schedules could be impacted for years to come, disrupting business planning and adding additional costs to already pricey endeavours.
It also remains to be seen what impact the coronavirus crisis will have on the public’s behaviour and consumption patterns after the lockdown is ended. The latest public attitude research from ALVA shows that the public will be much more cautious about attending public spaces and gatherings for some time to come – 29% of UK audiences say that they are unlikely to want to return to a museums for a long time. In particular, it is difficult to envisage international tourism returning to pre-crisis levels for several years. Many of the larger museums rely hugely on international tourism with as many as 45% of visitors coming from overseas. We therefore anticipate that there will be a period of adjustment during which museums will need both public support and a reappraisal of business models in order to secure their operations in the long-term.
We expect job losses in the museum sector due to the current crisis, although it is impossible to predict the extent of these at this stage. It depends substantially on when the lockdown ends, the extent to which government support schemes have been successful in preventing insolvencies, and the willingness of the government to provide ongoing assistance to organisations after lockdown to get back on their feet. However, we can already see that many seasonal staff will not be employed over the coming peak season; that freelance work is drying up in many areas; and that there will be a very large oversupply of new graduates via Museums Studies courses and those graduating from apprenticeship schemes who will be unable to find their desired employment in the sector due to the current crisis.
Museums and museum sector bodies have had the opportunity to feed in to decision-making via contact with ministers and government departments since the beginning of the crisis. We welcome the constructive and quick approach taken by the teams that we have dealt with in this extraordinary period.
However, while we understand that government, and particularly the Treasury, have sought to rely on cross-sectoral schemes to support the economy during this crisis, this has led to schemes which do not meet the needs of museums and the wider charity sector. As noted above, many of the schemes that have been introduced to support businesses have been completely unsuitable for museums, while the grant schemes introduced by arms-length bodies are likely to be too small by themselves to solve the cashflow issues facing the sector. There is still a missing part of the jigsaw – the need for an effective scheme that supports charities of all kinds through this crisis.
UK museums pose a problem for legislation and policies that are designed for ‘businesses’ or ‘public bodies’. Many museums are neither, though involve elements of both. Past experience of policy implementation has shown that the nuances of the museum sector mean that it needs special attention – the ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. Although museums are different to other sectors, they share some of these difficulties with Government schemes with other cultural sectors.
Our response to Q3 covers a number of the long-term effects of the coronavirus crisis on the museums and heritage sectors, particularly on finances, employment and reopening.
Museums Role in Supporting Communities
In addition, we would like to stress the vital role that museums play as hubs at the centre of communities across the country. Museums and heritage sites are above all community assets for all to enjoy and participate in, and we believe that they will be needed more than ever in the period after the coronavirus crisis. Through their venues, their collections, their events and their passionate staff, they can promote community cohesion; enable health and wellbeing; and promote reflection and debate on issues of public interest, and support local and regional visitor economies. Museums will require ongoing support and investment from DCMS, arms-length bodies and local authorities to perform these varied roles – we cannot go back to a lengthy period of austerity.
Museums are of particular importance to schools and educational organisations in supporting both formal and informal education, and the sector is well-placed to support the education sector as it exits lockdown and returns to normality. School visits should start as soon as it is safe to do so – and museums could play a more intensive part in enabling some schools to return by hosting classes on a full-time basis, which has previously been successfully trialled via the My Primary School is at the Museum project.
Museums and the High Street
Outside of London, museums will play an enhanced role in the recovery of city and town centres. The need for rejuvenation and diversification of the High Street had previously been recognised in a range of government initiatives such as future High Street Fund and Heritage Action Zones. The coronavirus crisis will accelerate the decline of retail in city centres; it is unlikely that all retailers will return to their stores after lockdown. It will be important to maintain an infrastructure of culture and leisure activities to ensure city centres are places where people can live, work and play.
Civic museums in particular are well placed to reimagine city centres. Their varied collections and position as convener of public space can help people make global connections to contextualise local issues. Museums can also assist in the ‘relocalisation’ of retail, supporting new networks of local makers and artists.
It is important that DCMS and MHCLG support local councils through adequate revenue grant to maintain a cultural infrastructure in cities. Further bouts of austerity experienced by local councils are likely to lead to the tipping point for regional museums, further hollowing out city and town centres.
It is worth noting that DCMS was in the process of launching the £250m Cultural Investment Fund when the coronavirus crisis began. Around £100m of this funding is aimed at supporting regional museums to carry out urgent repairs on their buildings and estates – roll out of essential maintenance work via the ‘MEND’ fund has now been delayed while estates continue to deteriorate. These issues will not go away when museums reopen. Between national and regional museums in England alone the current repair bill is estimated at £1.2bn. We would like to ensure that this funding remains in place and that there will be future funded iterations of this scheme.
The current crisis has highlighted the importance of museum digital services – both collections digitisations and online outreach. Museum content has been vital in supporting education and entertainment throughout the crisis, including via major partnerships such as the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine strand and #MuseumFromHome day. One legacy of the current crisis is therefore likely to be continued increased demand for digital resources which will necessitate sustained, strategic investment from key funding bodies.
Many museums are already collecting items and testimony to represent the coronavirus crisis, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss with government how this might feature in future official memorials, records or exhibitions.