If shops can reopen in April, why can’t museums?

22 February 2021

Museums in England will reopen on 17 May – at the earliest. They are among the venues included in the third step of the government’s roadmap for easing the country out of lockdown, grouped with ‘cinemas and children’s play areas’ as ‘indoor entertainment’.

Three months is a long time. The best that can be said about this decision is that it gives museums some clarity – though not much – about when they can once again bring the public before their collections and into exhibitions. In practice, by the time they reopen many museum buildings will have been empty for more than five months, and in some cases for considerably longer. Counting from today, that means almost three more months with no visitor revenue from exhibitions, shops and cafes; three more months of pressure building on costs; and three more months in which public collections – with all they offer audiences in terms of education, escape, mental well-being and, yes, entertainment – will be physically inaccessible to the public.

Museums should not reopen until it is safe for their staff and visitors for them to do so. What is disappointing, however, is that the government is to reopen other types of indoor venue before museums have their turn. The second phase of unlocking – from 12 April, at the earliest – includes ‘indoor leisure’ (gyms etc), ‘all retail’, and libraries and community centres. Given how purposefully many museums worked to make themselves ‘Covid-secure’ last summer, it is hard to comprehend why they will not be ready to open at the same time as these other indoor venues. Is there a public health justification for the decision that is specific to museums? Without one, we can say that they will not reopen when it is safe for their staff and visitors for them to do so: they will reopen more than a month later. ‘This is a bizarre and damaging decision which makes little sense in terms of public health,’ says one London museum director. ‘If libraries, community centres and department stores can open, so should museums and galleries. It feels like ministers are not making the case for culture.’

It is easy to push the seemingly arbitrary differentiation between types of venue to absurd conclusions. If all retail premises can open in mid April, will museums at that point be able to reopen their shops but not their galleries? (Tate Modern has six shops and a souvenir kiosk, after all.) Could the V&A allow readers back into the National Art Library, which is housed onsite at South Kensington, but insist that they avert their eyes from the artworks they have to pass to reach it? Museums do retail and museums do libraries – and many act, sometimes more literally than others, as community centres too. They don’t do gyms, thank god.

Difficult decisions have had to be taken, no doubt, in planning a gradual return to something like the world as it was; caution and data modelling dictate that not all indoor venues can reopen at the same time. But in laying out its roadmap for unlocking, the government has set down its priorities. That those priorities include the relegation of museums to Step 3 looks like a clear expression of what many who work in the arts have come to suspect of this government: that it sees culture as an afterthought, something easily left on the shelf. The French culture minister has stated publicly that museums and public monuments will be among the first venues in the country to reopen when cases of Covid-19 subside. The British culture secretary, meanwhile, has privately convened museum directors to tell them how to interpret history. He may be disappointed with museums, but I suspect that right now they’re disappointed with him.


  1. Philip Stephenson Feb 23 2021 at 4:59 pm

    Here in Cambridge, to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum during the ‘relaxed’ period (July-November 2020) you needed to book a time-slot, needed to wear face-coverings, follow routed pathways. . . hand-sanitiser stations at every point where you were likely to have touched a surface (e.g. bannisters) and diligent visitor services staff ensuring that people kept their distance. I visited once or twice a week and in most of the galleries, there were no more than four or five other people.
    This was a complete contrast to my daily experience in supermarkets and other shops such as department stores. . . yet museum spaces are obviously seen by the government and advising scientists as such principal drivers of increased infection rates that they should remain closed until mid-May.
    A decision that is beyond comprehension!

  2. Cristina Maria Feb 24 2021 at 3:54 pm

    Excellent article – I couldn’t agree with it more. I’m very happy with gyms opening, but I cannot understand how a gym would be seen as safer than a museum, where you can easily control the flow of people, the surfaces they touch, and how they behave. Not to generalize, but museum crowds are generally the orderly kind.

    I’d also add that when museums opened up in the summer and you were asked to book a time-slot, it was nearly impossible unless you were very quick about it (granted, this was for the V&A which is a popular choice for obvious reasons) which proves in a small way that the demand is there. Perhaps we should be more vocal about it? Not that it would matter all that much to the people in charge, though.

  3. An excellent article. I would also ask why, when the V & A reopened last year, the doors to the National Art Library (and to the archive at Blythe House) remained firmly shut. As the British Library, the Bodleian and The National Archive have shown, it was perfectly possible to open libraries with the required health precautions in place. Libraries, of course, do not generate revenue. Might that have something to do with it?

  4. Charles Rivers Mar 9 2021 at 6:23 pm

    Surely safely distanced museums, where mostly silent visitors exhale very little, are far safer than indoor gyms, where strenuous exercise makes people exhale and inhale violently? The virus as an infectious aerosol can hang in the air for hours.

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