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With more museums opening their doors, how much will safety measures impact the cultural experience?

As coronavirus restrictions have eased for museums and galleries in England since the 4th July, many of the venues in Surrey have been delighted to open their doors and welcome visitors back, and more will follow over the coming weeks and months. But with all the safety measures in place to make visiting possible, how much will it dilute the cultural experience?

Adapting spaces and programmes for visitors is actually perfectly normal for museums*. You only need to look at the volume of online cultural resources and opportunities that have sprung up in the past few months to see how quickly they adapt to the needs of their users. Admittedly, it is not usually in such challenging and unsettling circumstances, but this is a sector that works hard to make a visitor experience as comfortable and accessible as it is inspiring. Therefore, whilst a museum, gallery or heritage visit for the time being will certainly include pre-booking, hand-sanitisers, social-distancing, test and trace, requests to wear face coverings and following of all necessary protocols to keep everybody safe, visitors can have confidence that the cultural experience will still be as enriching.

As Surrey museums start to reopen, you will discover beautiful indoor and outdoor places with exhibitions and events that have been waiting in the wings since lockdown in March. Programmes have been revised for families and adults, as well as workshops adapted for schools. New displays have been developed behind the scenes whilst closed to the public in preparation for this moment. And of course, there is a gathering of material that will become the re-telling of Surrey during the coronavirus pandemic, when the time is right.

It is still too soon after reopening, but we will surely be seeing exhibitions with adaptations of Our Lockdown Life in the not-too-distant future. Our recent experiences will have been captured by so many individuals. There will be personal stories, photographs and journals, physical objects that didn’t exist in quite the same way before the pandemic. There will be local to global media coverage, as well as a mass of social and digital material. There will also be evidence of behaviours and expressions that we have become used to in ‘these strange and unprecedented times’ as we adapt to a ‘new normal’ – language and social quirks that would never have made sense in 2019 yet are so familiar now.

What did we mean by ‘Clap for Carers’ or ‘being in a bubble’? What did a socially distanced family BBQ look like? And why did toilet roll sales go through the roof in March 2020?

Our cultural settings are the perfect platform to unite individual experiences and bring community stories together in the way they always have.

Many generations today will never have experienced something of this magnitude, and many have not known something with such widespread impact since the last World War. We’re not out of the woods, yet life is already very different to the one we were leading less than a year ago.

At some point, we will need time and space to reflect on these extraordinary circumstances.  Whatever silver-linings people have managed to find, there is no doubt at all that it is has been a frightening, challenging, confusing, thought-provoking, isolating, frustrating and shocking time and it will be important to tell our stories. Often, expressing our version of events and finding out about others during a similar time helps us to make more sense of them.

Museums are ultimately about the people they serve, and reflecting social change is what they do best. In fact, being agents of memories and change is at the very heart of what museums do. It is a vital role of cultural organizations to share the impact of events and experiences of past and present lives. Therefore, capturing significant moments like this in our living history will be as important for those in the here-and-now to learn about and understand as it will be for those in the future. Having a forum to connect with individual and community experiences will hopefully be restorative for many and will undoubtedly be a significant and illuminating record of a most unexpected time for us all.

Maybe now more than ever, we need the chance to re-connect with familiar touchstones of life before the pandemic. We need affordable, inspiring and uplifting cultural opportunities. And most importantly, we need neutral spaces to unite our experiences and have time for reflection.

Museums provide all these opportunities and more.

Whether you’re in need of familiarity, escapism or a place to express yourself, look beyond face masks and one-way systems because a museum visit is still the rich cultural tonic it has always been.

*Museums is our catch-all term for museums, galleries and heritage organizations.

See which Surrey museums are now open to the public by clicking on our Quick List.

Blog Preview photograph: A ‘Tramp Master’ welcome to The Guildford Spike Vagrants and Casuals Ward