Recovery round up

We spoke to colleagues from AIM Board and beyond to assess current thinking around reopening.

Andrew Lovett, Chief Executive, Black Country Living Museum and AIM Chair:

“As an open-air site, we have a few more options available to us than a traditional museum might. Now that the Government has set out a timetable, albeit a conditional one, we will accelerate planning, including when we will unfurlough certain staff to prepare for re-opening. We’re planning to re-open no later than 4 July, but anticipate the reality could be after this date as the situation is so fluid, so we’ll continue to monitor Government guidance. Ahead of this, it will be important to have effective public and media communications about why the Museum is open (or why it isn’t) especially if we appear out of step with other more traditional museums or what are perceived as similar public venues/spaces.

We’ll open in a simple way to begin with, with limited staff. Undertaking large-scale events is a different matter and will be even further down the track, perhaps later in the year. We’re obviously concerned about staff safety and I do wonder how easy it will be to get PPE; we won’t and can’t be a priority over the NHS. We are also mindful of expected changes to the job retention scheme and any access to emergency support from sector funders, and how this might impact our thinking. For example whilst we welcome the recent extension of the job retention scheme, if it, or other support is withdrawn before recovery and growth has matured it will be highly problematic. A financially viable opening is not easy and the lean winter months of 20/21, with limited working capital will be a challenge.

That said, and as ever, we are immensely grateful for the continued loyalty and ongoing support of our visitors”.

Marilyn Scott, Director, The Lightbox, Woking and AIM Vice-Chair:

“All the discussions I have been having this week have been focussing on when is it financially sensible to re-open, given that we will have costs to make our museums safe for visitors but have much reduced visitor numbers and therefore reduced income.

Obviously, outdoor attractions will be really keen to make the most of the Summer season and so the 4 July date will be so welcome for them all. Those of us operating indoor sites will, I think, be taking that leap a little more slowly and we are ourselves looking at September as perhaps the optimum time to re-open.

That will give us the time for public confidence to build about coming into public buildings where social distancing is harder to achieve. One of the difficulties for all of us operating museums where cashflow is critical is that we are almost on version 25b of the latest cashflow forecast – it changes every single day and new, and very welcome initiatives, like the extension of furlough this week meant that everything has to be re done and of course different versions for different reopening scenarios. Those who are efficient with Excel spreadsheets have been worth their weight in gold to every organisation! “

Sir Ian Blatchford, Chair of The National Museum Directors’ Council and Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group:

“The major museums I represent receive a staggering 85m visits each year, and I know from the huge increase in digital traffic right now that legions of children and families want us back in their lives. And 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 whole world. Visiting the Science Museum recently, it felt as silent and forlorn as Miss Haversham’s mansion in Great Expectations.

The Government has trailed the possibility of museums re-opening from 4 July, 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, nor is it intended as one. Our path to re-opening 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, re-opening too soon could be financially ruinous, for others not opening before the summer is over could prove problematic. 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, and the planning and tourism plans of each city and town.

Museums come in many shapes and sizes, with diverse objects and display styles that range from the traditional to the interactive. Some can offer set routes for a visit, yet it is harder for others. That is why 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. You can expect the opening process to begin in July and run into autumn and beyond.

The serious work being undertaken now by all museums is looking at how we need to adapt our buildings to ensure safety – and of course we are engaging with Government, good practice in industry and will be consulting unions too. So visitors returning can expect a slightly different experience. Some museums are exploring free, timed ticketing that would ensure the right number of visitors to allow for a relaxed visit while creating 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 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.

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”.

To hear more from the sector on reopening and what the latest government guidance means for museums, register for AIM’s virtual conference on 18 and 19 June. See the full programme and booking details here.