Museums, galleries and heritage sites across Surrey have been following government guidelines closely and have been closed to the public since March. That doesn’t mean the wheels stopped turning however, and our heritage sector continues to provide a greatly valued service to the public at home through links to stimulating activities, exhibitions, resources and ways to be connected. Enjoy dipping into these on our Escape to the Museums page.
However, museums (our catch-all term) have not escaped the impact of the closures during the coronavirus pandemic. Surrey museums vary so much in size and in the way they are funded and staffed, and each one has been affected in its own way – and this is not looking any easier as they plan for reopening.
In the beginning As the government lockdown plans were put into action, there was an immediate and impressive response from all the support services and professional bodies to help museums manage effective closures and staffing arrangements, and to direct funds quickly where needed. This helped the most vulnerable museums in crisis to find some stability, thus safeguarding staff and public collections.
For local authority museums work has continued, but with employees working from home, being creative in finding ways to deliver services remotely and producing virtual resources to keep in touch with their communities. Staff have been plugging gaps in other departments where needed, and supporting their most vulnerable residents by other means for their local authority as well through schemes like Operation Shield.
For museums and galleries that are independent and generate their own income, volunteers went home, and staff were furloughed. The sites have been doing their best with the staff available to them, developing and delivering what services and resources they can to the public online.
And of course, museums are keeping a staff presence in the buildings within the parameters of the guidelines to continue the important work of caring for the sites and collections.
What happens next?
A critical part of the work going on behind the scenes is looking ahead and planning carefully for when the cultural sector reopens to the public. Whatever guidance comes from the government, there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Each individual museum will need to interpret what to put in place to keep the staff, volunteers and public safety at the forefront of everything they do.
These are just some of the considerations Surrey museums preparing for:
Volunteer workforce There is likely to be a significant impact on the volunteer workforce and a downturn in staff that so many Surrey museums rely on to operate. Those who are healthy enough to return may still not wish to be in close proximity to others for a while in the museum setting or using public transport for example.
Purchasing of PPE equipment and signposting resources on a shoe-string budget
Retail and Catering For museums with shops and cafes, distancing measures and hygiene will need to be carefully managed, along with cleaning and use of onsite toilet facilities
Visits & programming Even with the doors open again, it will be uncertain what shape visiting will take. When will the public have confidence to visit in groups? When will activities, events, exhibitions, workshops, school and community events that involve groups together in small spaces be possible?
These are just some of the considerations. All have implications on daily operations and income generation, and museums are looking closely at their business models as they plan and prepare options.
Whilst the lifting of lockdown creeps forward, it’s fair to say that all sectors will be looking forward to getting back to business and cautious about getting it right in equal measure.
Museums too are getting their heads around what the new guidance for our sector reopening means for each one in turn.
As the country enters a new phase, we know the ripples of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt for some time to come, and the heritage sector will be feeling them too.