British museums face the long-term effects of Covid

LONDON — The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has one of Britain’s most eccentric collections of treasure.

In a room of the Decorative and Applied Arts Museum is the Great Bed of Ware, a ten-foot four-poster bed that was such a popular tourist attraction in 16th-century England that William Shakespeare mentioned it in “Twelfth Night.” A pair of Nike running shoes are on display a short walk away.

But on several recent visits to the V&A, as the museum is known, some of the eclectic exhibits were off limits. On a Sunday in September, a small sign at the entrance announced that the British Galleries were closed. So were the furniture pieces. And that also applied to a large part of the ceramics collection.

The sign offered no explanation, but a museum employee said that because the museum fired employees with a tightening of the belt after the lockdown, galleries were often closed.

“If you want to see something, it’s best to call ahead,” she said.

More than 18 months since the coronavirus pandemic hit Britain, its long-term effects on the country’s museums are becoming apparent. Months of closures have wreaked havoc on their finances and as a result, many museums expect to be short on cash for years.

The British government handed out billions in financial aid while art venues were forced to close. Still, for many venues, it wasn’t enough to fill the gap with lost exhibition, gift shop and hospitality revenues. The V&A lost nearly 53 million pounds, or about $73 million, in the year after the pandemic hit.

Since May, museums in England have been allowed to open their doors without restrictions and visitors have returned – although the number of visitors is not even half prepandemic.

“We are still seeing the impact of the pandemic,” said Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, a trade association. “It’s not normal at all anymore.”

According to research by the association, nearly 4,700 staff have been made redundant in the UK museum sector since the start of the pandemic. The Brontë Parsonage Museum, in the house where the authors’ sisters lived, lost 12 employees in the past year. The Royal Collection Trust, which manages the Queen’s art collection, lost 165, including the surveyor of the Queen’s photographs, a roll dating back to 1625. Last year, significant job losses in the retail and hospitality sectors of the Tate museum group to protests outside Tate Modern.

But at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the lingering effects of the pandemic seem most apparent.

Last August, Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, began setting up a plan to save about £10 million or about $13.7 million each year. He asked the departments of the museum to plan for cuts of up to 20 percent. He also suggested rearranging the museum’s curatorial and research departments so that they would no longer be organized by material, such as glass or metal. Instead, they should be organized according to historical era.

The plan did not go down well when it was announced in February. A union representing some of the museum’s employees has launched an online petition against the planned changes to the National Art Library, housed in the V&A; a France-based organization representing performing arts museums started another. Scientists denounced the proposals in newspaper opinion essays and in art publications. Christina J. Faraday, an art historian, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the plans touched on the museum’s identity.

“Tristram Hunt is at risk of becoming the director who found the V&A marble and left it like brick,” she said.

Within weeks, Hunt dropped the plan. Through a spokeswoman, he turned down several interview requests for this article, but in August told The Daily Telegraph he could “see the strength of their argument”. The museum has still cut department budgets by 10 to 12 percent and continues to limit the days it’s open to five a week, as opposed to seven before the pandemic.

Even after those cutbacks, the museum often doesn’t have enough staff to open all of its galleries. Of the 166 assistants who guarded the collection before March 2020, only 93 are now left. Steven Warwick, a representative of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents many museum employees, said assistants now have to patrol double the floor area and find it difficult to keep visitors from “interfering with the objects.”

Cuts in other departments of the V&A, such as the education and conservation teams, may have long-term effects, three former employees said.

Tessa Murdoch, the former custodian of sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass, said the loss of expertise in curatorial teams could hurt the quality of the museum’s exhibition labels and its ability to process loans. Eric Turner, a former metalworking conservator, said the museum’s conservators and interviewers would face more pressure to produce more during the same work hours.

In an email to The New York Times, Phoebe Moore, a spokeswoman for V&A, said “no area” of the museum’s curatorial work was at risk. “We do not expect an impact on the care of the collections,” she said, adding that some galleries were closed due to “unexpected levels of illness and absence, not as a result of restructuring.”

“We expect to be back to normal soon,” Moore added.

Several other major UK museums, including Tate, have said they will now present fewer temporary exhibitions per year to keep costs down and give visitors more time to see shows. Moore said the V&A was still working out its post-pandemic exhibition plan, but the 2022 shows, including a major exhibition on African fashion, would continue as originally planned.

At the museum on a recent Sunday, a handful of visitors said they felt strongly that all of the V&A’s galleries should remain open. “I feel like England have left the pandemic,” said Sofia Viola (17).

But many others said it looked like the Q&A was trying its best. Farhat Khan, 58, who toured the museum with her grandson, said that although she was missing certain objects, the closures of the galleries did not bother her. “Of course it was annoying,” she said, “but we have to support everyone.”

Adam Mellor, 43, standing in front of the Great Bed of Ware with his family, expressed a similar sentiment. “I’d rather come here to have the museum half open than close it,” he said, just before encountering a blocked barrier, blocking his view of the galleries above.

“Oh, that’s a pity,” he said. “It’s really cool there,” he added with a sigh, leading his kids toward the opposition.

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