Perilous position for independent museums

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art. Picture: Andy Crouch

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art. Picture: Andy Crouch - Credit: Andy Crouch

A reader who specialises in writing about culture fears some independent museums will not recover from lockdown, but also highlights how museums are connecting with new audiences including a tv documentary and older volunteers taking over social media.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Norfolk. Each year the tens of millions of visitors who flock to the county are worth more than £3.3 billion to the region’s economy. This income supports over 67,000 jobs for local people across a wide variety of industries.

However, 2020 will not be a normal year. Despite the lucrative summer holidays fast approaching, the stark message that “now is not the time for tourism” from Visit Norfolk provides all the proof needed that tough times lie ahead.

One of the hardest hit areas will inevitably be the culture sector. Many Norfolk museums are reliant on summer visitor revenues for as much as 90% of their annual incomes. For independent museums with no financial backing from the Government or Arts Council the outlook is especially grim.

Andrew Lovett, chairman of the Association of Independent Museums, says the loss of income already experienced by museums over the Easter holiday has ‘left many in a perilous position,’ adding: “Independent museums across the UK are struggling to see a route out of this crisis, even once the lockdown is lifted.”

One such institution is the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum near Horning. Site manager Lynn Kerslake took the decision to close before legally obliged, so volunteers aged over 70 were safe. Now she is busy seeking emergency funding and says re-opening feels ‘A very long way down the road,’ if it is able to happen at all.

Sheringham Museum, which relies on footfall from visitors and school bookings for income, has lost £6,000 in the past month alone.

Most Read

Stephen Machaye of the Norfolk Tank Museum said uncertainty around when the government will sanction a return to work made planning very difficult, although a flurry of supportive messages on social media and a grant from South Norfolk Council helped immensely.

With the majority of self-sustaining institutions across Norfolk facing similar situations, Jamie Everitt, regional museums development manager at SHARE Museums East, warned: “If full lockdown continues for a prolonged period then museums will start to lose substantial amounts of income.”

SHARE was established in 2012 to support museums throughout East Anglia and has been putting together packages to help museums survive since lockdown began. It is now moving on to look at what will be needed to help museums recover from lockdown but Jamie said: “The future for all museums will depend on how the economy responds in the longer term.”

None of the county council’s 10 Norfolk Museums Service sites are in immediate danger of permanent closure, although John Ward, chairman of the Norfolk Joint Museums Committee, said it had been a difficult time. Lynn Museum, Time and Tide Museum, Norwich Castle and the Museum of Norwich have all embarked on, or continued, online initiatives to connect with as many people as possible.

With the majority of its funding secure the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, at the University of East Anglia, is another of the region’s cultural hubs managing to stay above water. A quarter of its income has nevertheless been wiped out during lockdown.

“The university is going to be substantially hit, both in this financial year and the next,” explains the Centre’s acting director, Ghislaine Wood. “There will be some knock-on impacts for us, but we aren’t sure what that will be yet.”

“The best thing anyone can do to support us is to visit as soon as the Centre’s back open,” she said, adding that donating, joining as a member and using the online shop all help provide additional revenue streams.

In some much-needed positive news, its Art Deco by the Sea exhibition is the focus of an episode in the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine series, now available on iplayer.

Another large-scale exhibition with a less certain future is Dippy on Tour, which was set to open in July at Norwich Cathedral. The final stop on a nationwide tour which has already attracted more than 1.5 million visitors, the arrival of the Natural History Museum’s famous diplodocus skeleton would have been the perfect sequel to last summer’s hugely popular helter skelter.

As with any crisis, shoots of optimism can often be found in unlikely places. As the team in charge at Swaffham Heritage Museum work to secure crucial funding, a band of older volunteers have taken the reigns on social media. It has been a steep learning curve for many of them, said volunteer manager Sue Gattuso, but it is hoped that keeping YouTube, Facebook and Twitter active while the museum’s doors are closed could help attract new visitors when lockdown ends.

It seems cruel that any of the county’s museums, devoted to preserving relics from the past for the public to enjoy, should find themselves consigned to the history books. With a little luck and the continued support of their local communities, that will not be the case.