Report from the museum

Inside a museum
Reunite at the museum

For the first time since early March, I bought a ticket for an exhibition last week. And weirdly, the experience wasn’t as weird as I was expecting. I bought a timed entry ticket the night before and remembered my mask. I was greeted outside the Barbican’s entrance and given a run-through of the direction to go and how the exhibition worked. Beyond that, the exhibition felt as normal. Everyone wore masks, of course – which now also feels normal.

There were arrows on the floor to guide people through the exhibition, but really that only felt like a formalization of a rule that’s always been there. In one respect, I liked the arrows as reassurance that I hadn’t missed any room or section of the exhibition. Frustrations with other visitors hovering too long were the same, but now, at least justified. At the end, I did rush past the tiny café and shop area, feeling that I was pushing my luck for spending that length of time indoors with strangers already.

While in the exhibition, I generally felt safe, like there was enough distance between me and others. Although it felt well-attended, I also didn’t struggle to find a space in every room for my own 2-meter bubble. Even a week before mask requirements came into effect in museums, I didn’t notice a single person not wearing one. As a result, my time in the exhibition was much less anxiety-provoking than the bus trip there.

Michael Dixon, the director of the Natural History Museum in London has said, “When people visit the museum over the next few months they are going to get a fantastic VIP experience because they will be able to see things without so many people around them, and I think that will be a wonderful experience for many, many people.” This is certainly an optimistic way of looking at the reduced visitor numbers – down to between 15%  and 20% of its usual capacity, which is 5 million visitors annually. The Natural History Museum, a fixture in London and the UK’s cultural canon, has warned that it cannot remain open long-term with a 20% capacity.

And while this is worrying news, I wonder too about the smaller museums, those with less funding, beyond the neoclassical and Victorian buildings of South Kensington and Bloomsbury. Is social distancing at all possible in the small family homes many smaller museums occupy? Is it viable for these smaller ‘micro museums’ to open at 20% capacity?

I think, especially, of the Sir John Soane museum in London, where part of the experience involves pressing through narrow corridors and stairways with strangers. For a museum that already had to tightly control their entry through timed tickets, they have had to postpone their re-opening until October, and even then, for only three days a week. For the St. Fagan’s National Museum in Wales, even with a one-way system, their re-opening has been limited to outdoor spaces. The answer for many smaller museums, is unfortunately, to wait.

As ever, I believe technology may provide some solutions. For instance, I wonder if the John Soane Museum could benefit from the traffic light system, employed so far at the Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. So far, there seems to be less of movement towards following American leadership in temperature checks, or social distance-enforcing wearable tags. The UK government guidelines suggest increased cleaning and even specialist training for employees. Inevitably, these changes require funds, already scarce pre-pandemic, and which must seem a low priority as compared to saving jobs.

However, I feel optimistic that museums will adjust. The sudden change to an entirely online format seemed to be taken completely within their stride at the start of the pandemic. As I reported in a previous blog, museums and galleries’ virtual tours and collections have received huge numbers of visitors, continuing to provide in the most extreme circumstances.

The combination of lack of funding (even after a £1.57bn boost to the arts economy) and the end of the furlough scheme may spell disaster, however. The Tate’s commercial arm, Tate Enterprises, has faced criticism in recent weeks over their job cuts affecting BAME employees disproportionately. Workers are demanding the Tate use 10% of its £7 million bail out package to save a huge portion of the company’s workforce. The Southbank and the National Gallery are facing similar levels of redundancies, with the Southbank becoming the site of protests including Venessa Redgrave among their midst. The PCS (Public and Commercial Services) union’s three demands are:

If bailout money is available it must save jobs.

If the money isn’t enough, then institutions must demand more funding.

No redundancies while senior staff continue to be paid annual salaries of over £100,000.

The demand to cut senior management’s pay before losing lower-level positions is part of a cross-sector, UK-wide problem. Alas, this is not the only problem facing one of the UK’s major institutions.

Tate Britain’s Rex Whistler room has also faced more criticism recently, over its famous mural, depicting racist stereotypes and slavery. The mural has generally, incomprehensibly, escaped scrutiny . However, the scrutiny in recent weeks has covered the mural’s description on the website. Until recently, the mural’s only reference was its description as ‘amusing’. The description has been updated since, with a much lengthier acknowledgement of the racist imagery.

I suspect this episode will demonstrate to museum practitioners the importance of staying abreast of two movements affecting the museum world. First, to acknowledge and correct the colonial attitudes and power dynamics present in some of our museums, and secondly, to adapt and prioritise the increasingly digital ways most audiences are now engaging with museums.

In the meantime, I suppose, we should enjoy the extra space.

Eleanor Morum

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