Museums in the Pandemic

Was there a ‘swing to the digital’? Museums and social media in the pandemic

In the course of the pandemic there were reports of museums boosting their online activity. ArtFund’s 2021 report (download) on the impact of COVID-19 noted most of the respondents felt they had ‘made a significant leap forward’ in relation to digital engagement, and anticipated further development in the future. 

The Network of Museum Organisations (download report) and the International Council of Museums (download report) also reported that an overwhelming majority of survey respondents had increased their online presence during museum closures. Social media was cited among the most popular tools for digital audience engagement during the pandemic. 

Our team collected open social media data covering the period between January 2019 and May 2022, to see how the pandemic has changed the way that UK museums use two platforms – Twitter and Facebook. 

Our findings challenge the received view: they suggest there was no sustained increase in social media use on these platforms as a result of the pandemic. 

We found that COVID-19 restrictions had an immediate two-fold effect on museums’ social media activity. On the one hand, we observed a fall in the number of active museum social media accounts between April 2020 and May 2021. Most of these museums had registered an account before the COVID-19 crisis, as new registrations made up less than 1% of active users. 

On the other hand, the museums that remained active posted more than before the pandemic. This spike was temporary, however, with activity returning almost to the pre-pandemic level after the first national lockdown (26 March – 04 July 2020), even dipping below it after restrictions were lifted. 

First Lockdown – Breaking old patterns of activity 

Let’s look at those findings in more detail. We analysed social media trends using two metrics: the changing number of museums active on social media, and how many social media posts they produced. We considered a museum account active in a given period if it posted at least one message. A fall in the number of active museums did not necessarily correlate with a fall in frequency of posting, and vice versa. When the pandemic emerged and after the end of restrictions, the two metrics behaved particularly differently. 

A graph showing UK museums active on Facebook and Twitter, 2019–2021. The vertical axis shows the number of museums and the horizontal axis shows the years and months, from January 2019 until January 2022. The line for Facebook activity starts at roughly 1775 museums and ends at roughly the same level. Below is the line for Twitter, which starts at roughly 1650 museums and ends at roughly 1450. For both, activity peaks in April 2020, during the first UK lockdown.

Both platforms saw a comparable decline in active users a week after the restrictions were announced in March 2020 and this measure remained low throughout the entire period of restrictions. The lowest active user rates occurred during the first and third national lockdowns – March to July 2020 and January to May 2021. 

Although the number of active users plummeted in the first lockdown, the ratio of tweets and Facebook posts per active museum actually became higher than in 2019. 

A graph showing UK museum social media posting activity on Facebook and Twitter, 2019–2021. The vertical axis shows the number of posts or tweets and the horizontal axis shows the years and months, from January 2019 until January 2022. The line for Twitter activity starts at just under 70,000 tweets and ends at roughly 50,000 tweets. Below is the line for Facebook, which starts at just over 30,000 posts and ends at a slightly higher level. For Twitter, activity peaks sharply in May 2020, during the first UK lockdown, and tails off from there. Facebook ativity is more even across the period, with the lowest level in February 2021.

The second graph shows monthly changes in the overall number of messages posted by museums that remained active. During the first lockdown, when the number of active accounts was particularly low, Facebook posts grew by 20% and tweets by 40% compared to the monthly average number of messages before the pandemic. 

This suggests major variation between museums in their response to COVID-19 on social media. Falling active users indicate that a number of museums used social media less than in 2019, while the museums that remained online were more likely to post more actively than before the pandemic. 

However, this flurry of social media use during the first lockdown was not matched by sustained activity as the pandemic continued. 

Museums using Facebook declined in their activity by the end of the first lockdown. Throughout the rest of the pandemic, museums published on average the same or slightly fewer Facebook posts than in 2019. On Twitter, active museums continued producing more tweets than in 2019 until the end of restrictions. However, after the first lockdown, the difference was less significant. 

After the lockdowns – towards a further decrease? 

Our data shows that there was no clear increase in social media use throughout the pandemic itself, and it suggests that posting activity continued to decline after the restrictions finished. 

By the time restrictions were lifted completely in 2021, tweet and post numbers were lower than they had been in 2019. In 2022, both platforms saw the lowest ratio of posts per museum in the entire studied period. On Twitter, the fall of tweeting activity coincided with a further decline in users. Facebook users, on the contrary, became more numerous but their content volume was the lowest in the entire studied period. 

Thus, claims about museums’ swing to the digital must be treated with some caution. As far as Twitter and Facebook were concerned, there was a broad swing away from the digital. Museums that were already active on those platforms became more so, but that flurry of posting was relatively short-lived. 

Further details on how national lockdowns influenced museums’ social media use and on the differences between the two platforms will be found in our forthcoming social media paper.

Katerina Mityurova

[Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash]


Museums in the Pandemic

More openings and closings in the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic we have been keeping track of museums opening and those closing permanently, or without clear plans for future reopening. We last reported on closures in May 2021, and openings in October 2021. This blog adds to those reports and includes closures and openings that took place between 2020–22. A further ten museums have closed, and we have recorded fifteen new museums opening. 


Of the ten closures since our last report, three were local authority museums. The Museum at the Mill in Newtonabbey closed in 2020, having been open since 2010, and enquiries so far have not yielded any information about the circumstances of its closure. Do let us know if you have any information. In 2021, Baysgarth House in Barton-upon-Humber closed. Open since 1981, the museum was shut pending redevelopment after management was returned to the local authority, so this closure may turn out to be temporary. And earlier this year, Eastleigh Museum in Hampshire closed. Management of the museum was devolved in 2014 to Hampshire Cultural Trust and One Community, a local health and wellbeing charity. The museum was staffed by volunteers from One Community and served as an access point for their outreach services. The charity relocated their services and Hampshire Cultural Trust stated that the museum generated insufficient revenue to make it possible for them to keep it open. 

Interior of the Museum of Army Music. Glass cases display uniforms, flags, instruments and other items.
The Museum of Army Music

A further seven independent museums also closed in this period. The Museum of Army Music, formerly in Twickenham, closed in early 2020 and is now in storage in Chatham until a new location can be found. In July 2020, the Hall at Abbey-cwm-Hir in Wales closed due to the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with no plans to reopen. The date of two other closures is somewhat uncertain, but it seems likely that the Shire Horse Farm and Carriage Museum in Redruth closed in 2020, and the Mechanical Memories Museum in Brighton closed sometime between 2020 and 2021. Two other independent museums have closed in 2022. Flame Gasworks Museum in Carrickfergus shut due to what the management described as operational and financial constraints, and Hull People’s Memorial Museum cited similar but more specific reasons for their closure. These included increasing costs, reduced donations from visitors, and an increased difficulty for volunteers of parking near the museum. 

Flame Gasworks Museum

These ten closures bring the current total of closures in 2020–22 to nineteen. Just two of those closures are known to be a direct result of the pandemic. 


All fifteen new museums recorded here are independent, three of them private and the remainder not-for-profit. The latter group includes Grimsay Boat Haven and Grimsay Archive, which opened in 2020. Based on the Isle of North Uist, it preserves the maritime heritage of the Western Isles including five Stewart boats in a large shelter. Also on a nautical theme is the New Coracle Shed in Coalbrookdale, which is dedicated to the history of coracles in the Severn Gorge and opened in 2021. The same year, Redditch in the West Midlands gained its third museum with the opening of Redditch Local History Museum, which has also initiated an archive as part of its work to record the history of the town. The last not-for-profit museum to open in 2021 was the Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland. The gallery displays a number of paintings from the Spanish Golden Age and is the latest venture in the larger Auckland Project (the project was featured in the recent Radio 4 series The Museums That Make Us). 

Interior of the boat shed at Grimsay Boat Haven. From front to back, a weathered dark green wooden dinghy, a much newer boat painted in dark blue and red, and a third boat with a rubber buoy resting on top.
Grimsay Boat Haven

A further eight not-for-profit museums opened in 2022. These included Glasgow Royal Infirmary Museum, which illustrates the hospital’s contribution to medicine. Kent Mining Museum is concerned with the history of the Kent coalfield and is built on the site of the former Betteshanger colliery. The UK’s first museum dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, Queer Britain, opened in London’s Kings Cross in May and was the culmination of four years of events and pop-up exhibitions. A short walk away is Somers Town Museum, which focusses on the history of its local area near Euston station and also serves as a community space. In Scotland, The Battle of Prestonpans Museum and Jacobite Heritage Centre commemorates the eponymous battle that took place in 1745. In the West Midlands, Stourbridge Glass Museum celebrates the town’s glassmaking heritage. The Barn Theatre and Museum near Hastings is home to a collection of toys, puppets, and theatre sets dating from the eighteenth century to the present. And in August 2022, the Yorkshire Natural History Museum opened in Sheffield.

The front of Stourbridge Glass Museum, a modern building with white walls, glass frontage to the left. To the right an older brick building with a conical brick kiln rising above it.
Stourbridge Glass Museum
The logo of Yorkshre Natural History Museum. Illustrations of a dolphin swimming above a plesiosaur with water bubbles, a red plant and a starfish.

The three private museums include another on a nautical theme, Margate’s Crab Museum, which opened in 2021. The same year another local history museum opened, in Harwich, Essex. Displays include memorabilia from the popular 1980s TV show Hi-de-Hi!, which was filmed at a holiday camp nearby. On a more literary theme is Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein in Bath. The author lived in the city for a time and the museum is dedicated to Shelley and her famous creation.

These fifteen new museums join the fourteen openings in 2020–21 recorded in our previous blog on new museums in the pandemic. As mentioned in that blog, we did not anticipate so many new museums and expected instead to be recording more closures. With nineteen closures recorded altogether so far and twenty-nine openings, the sector has grown slightly during the pandemic. Could this be a sign of resilience, or might we record more closures before the end of 2022? 

Mark Liebenrood 

[All images courtesy of the museums. Header image by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash.] 

Museums in the Pandemic

Museum reopening after lockdown in the UK nations

When museums began to reopen after lockdown restrictions were lifted in spring 2021, were there any differences between the four nations of the UK? 

Our data gives slightly different pictures of the situation depending on how it is analysed. In one view, museums in England were more likely to reopen. In another, Scottish museums were more likely to reopen. Read on to find out more about our analysis. 

Between March and November 2021, museum websites increasingly mentioned that they were open. That trend reflects the relaxation of lockdown restrictions. In April 2021, outdoor attractions began to reopen and museums in Scotland were able to reopen towards the end of the month. Museums in the rest of the UK were able to reopen in May 2021. This pattern can be seen in the chart below. 

A chart showing the percentage of museums whose websites mentioned that they were open, categorised into the four UK nations, between March and November 2021. The trend for all four nations is an increase, with slight differences that are explained in the accompanying text.

An upward trend can be observed in each nation, and all apart from Northern Ireland show a very similar amount of change. For England, mentions of opening increased by 9% (from almost 45% of museum websites, to 54%), and in Wales they increased by the same amount (from 35% to 44%). For Scotland, there was a slightly smaller increase of 8% (from 42% to 50%). In Northern Ireland the increase was smaller again at 6% (from 47% to 53%). Scotland and Wales show slight downturns at the end of the period, but it isn’t clear what the cause of this might be.  

The picture looks somewhat different when examining indications of closure. The chart below shows the percentage of websites mentioning current closure between March and November 2021. As we might expect, the declining trend seen overall for mentions of closure is replicated here. For England, it declined by 17% (from almost 70% of museum websites, to 53%). For Scotland, there was just a 10% decline (from 64% to 54%), and this was the same in Wales (from 58% to 48%). In Northern Ireland, which has far fewer museums, the decline was slightly smaller at 7% (from 50% to 43%). 

A chart showing the percentage of museums whose websites mentioned that they were closed, categorised into the four UK nations, between March and November 2021. The trend for all four nations is a decrease, with slight differences that are explained in the accompanying text.

Mirroring the slight unexplained downturns in mentions of opening for Scottish and Welsh museums, here we see slight upticks for the same nations at the end of the period. But overall, reduced mentions of closure could suggest that, based on the language found on museum websites, museums in England were more likely to reopen than those elsewhere in the UK.  

That finding is slightly complicated by manually checking samples of the text we found on museum websites. That textual analysis suggests that Scottish museums were slightly more likely to reopen. In April 2021 – before lockdown was lifted – we found that 556 museums in England explicitly stated that they were closed due to Covid, compared to 101 museums in Scotland, 44 museums in Wales, and 22 museums in Northern Ireland.  

By September 2021, four months after restrictions had been relaxed, we found that 106 English museum websites still stated they were closed due to the pandemic, a reduction of 81% from April. By comparison, 16 Scottish museum websites still stated this, a slightly larger reduction of 84% over the same period. Museums in Wales and Northern Ireland showed a smaller reduction.  

Although the numbers are quite different, museum websites in both countries mentioning closure due to Covid decreased by the same proportion, 73%. In Wales, 12 museums still mentioned this in September 2021, down from 44, while just six museums in Northern Ireland did so, down from 22. So this analysis suggests that Scottish museums were slightly more likely to reopen than those in England, and museums in Wales and Northern Ireland show lower rates of reopening. 

These analyses by the nations of the UK all give slightly different views of the situation. Analysing mentions of opening on websites suggests that museums in England and Wales were very slightly more likely to reopen than those in Scotland, and museums in Northern Ireland the least likely to reopen. Analysing mentions of closure gives a different picture; one that suggests that English museums were more likely to reopen than those in other nations. But a closer analysis of website texts suggests a different picture again – that of Scottish museums being slightly more likely to reopen. 

Mark Liebenrood

Museums in the Pandemic

Accreditation, size, and museum reopening after lockdown

As lockdown restrictions were lifted in spring 2021, were there any variations in reopening between accredited and unaccredited museums, or between museums of different sizes?  

Briefly, accredited museums were more likely to reopen after lockdown than unaccredited museums, and larger museums were more likely to reopen than smaller museums. Read on to find out more about our results and analysis. 


Between March and November 2021, museum websites increasingly mentioned that they were open: a trend that reflects the relaxation of lockdown restrictions. This pattern can be seen in the chart below. 

A chart showing the percentage of accredited and unaccredited museums whose websites mentioned that they were open, between March and November 2021. The trend for both types is a slight increase.

For accredited museums (orange line), mentions of being open rose by 10% (from 49% to 59%). Most of that change took place between April and June 2021, which was around the time that museums could reopen after lockdown. By contrast, mentions of being open rose by just 6% for unaccredited museums (from 40% to 46%). The greater change for accredited museums suggests that they were more likely to reopen than those that are unaccredited. 

We can check the data on opening by comparing it with that on closing and, indeed, over this same period museum websites were less likely to mention that they were closed.  

A chart showing the percentage of accredited and unaccredited museums whose websites mentioned that they were closed, between March and November 2021. The trend for both types is a significant decrease.

The chart above shows the percentage of websites mentioning current closure between March and November 2021. For accredited museums, this declined by 19% (from 77%, to 58% by November 2021). Again, a large part of that change took place between April and June 2021, although the situation was still changing noticeably until September. By contrast, for unaccredited museums mentions of closure on websites declined by just 10% (from 58% to 48%). That smaller decline in mentions of closure again suggests that accredited museums were more likely to reopen than those that are unaccredited. 

As described in our previous blog on the relationship between governance and reopening, we also manually checked samples of the text we found on museum websites for statements of closure due to the pandemic. In April 2021 we found that 456 accredited museums explicitly stated that they were closed due to Covid, compared to 268 unaccredited museums. 

By September 2021, four months after restrictions had been relaxed, we found that just 64 accredited museum websites still stated they were closed due to the pandemic, a reduction of 86% from April. By comparison, 76 unaccredited museums still stated this, a smaller reduction of 72%. So this analysis further confirms that accredited museums were more likely to have reopened, while unaccredited museums show a lower rate of reopening. 


The Mapping Museums database categorises the size of museums according to the number of annual visitors. Huge museums usually receive more than a million visitors a year, large museums between fifty thousand and a million, medium museums between ten thousand and fifty thousand, and small museums less than ten thousand. (read more on how we categorised museum sizes). 

As seen in the chart below, museum websites increasingly mentioned that they were open between March and November 2021, and this change differs between museum sizes. 

A chart showing the percentage of museums whose websites mentioned that they were open, categorised into four sizes, between March and November 2021. The trend for all four sizes is an increase, with smaller museums showing the smallest.

The larger a museum is, the more likely its website was to mention being open as this period progressed. For huge museums (orange line), there was an increase of 25% between March and September 2021 (from 67% to 92%), although this dipped to 83% in November. The sharp fluctuations observed in this group are to be expected when analysing the relatively small sample of twelve museums. 

For large museums (blue line), websites using the language of opening had increased by 14% by November 2021 (from 56% to 70%, although it had almost reached that point by June). Medium museums (green line) showed a smaller increase of 10% (from 49% to 59%), and small museums (red line) showed an even smaller increase of 6% (from 39% to 45%). 

As for accreditation, we can check the data on opening by comparing it with that on closing. Over the same period, as museums reopened mentions of closure on their websites decreased. 

A chart showing the percentage of museums whose websites mentioned that they were closed, categorised into four sizes, between March and November 2021. The trend for all four sizes is a decrease, with smaller museums showing the smallest decrease.

Huge museums showed the biggest reduction in the language of closure (from 100% in March 2021 to 67% by September). One of them, the National Portrait Gallery, closed in 2020 for refurbishment. 

The smaller a museum is, the smaller the decline in the language of closure. Large museums declined by 21% (from 83%, to 62% by November 2021), while medium museums declined by 20% (from 76% to 56% by September 2021). Meanwhile small museums showed just an 11% decline (from 60% to 49% by November 2021). That change is about half of that for medium and large museums. This suggests that smaller museums were much less likely reopen than medium, large and huge museums. 

To complement these summary analyses, we followed the same process outlined for accreditation by also manually checking samples of website text. In April 2021 we found just one huge museum that explicitly stated that it was closed due to Covid: this was Kelvingrove in Glasgow. There were 133 large museums making a similar statement, 230 medium museums, and 337 small museums. 

By September 2021, we found that just 13 large museum websites still stated they were closed due to the pandemic, a reduction of 90% from April. The reduction for medium museums was slightly less at 86%, with 32 still making similar statements. The reduction for small museums was even less at 74%, with 87 still advertising closure. So this analysis of website text also confirms that the smaller a museum is, the less likely it was to have reopened. 

Mark Liebenrood 

Museums in the Pandemic

Museum governance and reopening after lockdown

Which museums re-opened after lockdown restrictions were lifted in spring 2021, and did it vary by governance? In this blog we present our findings about the three largest groups of museums in our dataset: those run by local authorities, independents run on a not-for-profit basis, and private museums.

As seen in the chart below, museum websites increasingly mentioned that they were open between March and November 2021. That trend reflects the relaxation of lockdown restrictions. In April 2021, outdoor attractions began to reopen and museums in Scotland were able to reopen towards the end of the month. Museums in the rest of the UK were able to reopen in May 2021. 

A chart showing a gradual increase in mentions of reopening on museum websites between March and November 2021, for local authorities, independent not-for-profits, and private museums.
% of museum websites mentioning current opening

Local authority museum websites (orange line) show the largest increase (from 44% in March 2021 to 56% in November 2021), which suggests that they are more likely to have reopened than the other two groups. The increase can be seen as early as April, which may reflect websites updating in anticipation of full reopening in May 2021. The change in April may also reflect the reopening of outdoor facilities across the UK that month, prior to full reopening in May. Independent not for profit museum websites (green line) show a smaller change (from 41%, to 49% by August 2021), and private museums (blue line) changed by a similar amount (from 36%, to 45% by November 2021).

Over the same period, museum websites decreasingly mentioned that they were closed.

A chart showing a gradual decrease in mentions of closure on museum websites between March and November 2021, for local authorities, independent not-for-profits, and private museums.
% of museum websites mentioning current closure

The chart above shows the percentage of websites mentioning current closure between March and November 2021. The biggest drop is for local authority museums (from 77%, to 59% by August 2021), which again suggests that they are more likely to have reopened. That decline was slightly less on websites of independent not for profit museums (from 65% to 49% by September 2021). Private museums show the smallest change (from 49% to 44% by September 2021). This could suggest that private museums are least likely of the three groups to have reopened, but the chart of reopening above suggests that they were similar in this respect to not-for-profits.

Whether considering mentions of opening or closure, our summary website data suggests that local authority museums were the most likely to have reopened of these three groups of museums.

That finding is borne out by manually checking samples of the text we found on museum websites. In April 2021 – before lockdown was lifted – we found that 231 local authority museums explicitly stated that they were closed due to Covid, compared to 318 independent not for profit museums and 45 private museums.

By September 2021, four months after restrictions had been relaxed, we found that just 38 local authority museum websites still stated they were closed due to the pandemic, a reduction of 84% from April. By comparison, 72 not for profit independent museums still stated this, a smaller reduction of 77%. For private museums, 10 websites still stated they were closed due to the pandemic, a reduction of 78%. So this analysis also suggests that local authority museums were more likely to have reopened, while private museums and not-for-profits show lower rates of reopening.

These figures must be seen as approximate, given that not all museum websites are updated regularly and our search tools are far from perfect. But both types of analysis suggest that local authority museums were more likely to reopen after lockdown than the largest groups of independent museums.

Mark Liebenrood

Museums in the Pandemic

Long closures after lockdown

When we set out to collect data on museums during the pandemic, we were eager to explore how long they remained closed and if they had reopened. The results were not what we expected and finding out why proved a more complicated process than we had anticipated.  

To recall, we have built a web-scraping tool to identify words that indicate open/closed on museum websites. Monthly website snapshots allowed us to see how these indicators changed over time and the graph below plots the period between March and November 2021. As you can see, and as we might expect, the references to closure (the blue line) drop and the references to opening increase (the red line).  

A graph showing indicators of museum website language during 2021. The vertical axis shows the number of museums. The horizontal axis shows the date the websites were accessed. There are six lines on the graph. From top to bottom, a green line shows online engagement; a purple line shows intent to reopen; a blue line shows closed currently; a red line shows open currently; a brown line shows staff working; a yellow line shows funding. The lines are explained in more detail in the text of this blog post.

Thus, the data confirmed our general sense of what happened in this period, namely that museums re-opened after lockdown restrictions eased. However, we were surprised that these indicators stabilized from September onwards. Around half of UK museums websites continued to use language that indicated ‘closed’. Conversations with museum sector staff confirmed that many museums had decided to remain closed in 2021, but we still felt our findings were somewhat high.  

We needed to know if the data was correct or if our software was malfunctioning, so we began to check results from individual websites. The result was reassuring in that our web-scraper had correctly identified ‘open’ and ‘closed’ terms. The problem was that the same language was used to describe a wide range of events or instances. For instance, websites announced that they were ‘closed for Christmas’ or that certain part of the museum complex, such as the café or galleries were closed. ‘Open’ was used in a similar way, such as in the case of online exhibitions.  

We needed to distinguish between usages of ‘closed’, and so Andrea Ballatore, our resident software expert, designed a new piece of kit. This allowed us to search and analyze specific terms in their linguistic context. We looked at a sample of 1200 museum websites as they stood in September 2021, and in 167 instances the term indicated the site was closed specifically due to the pandemic (‘The museum remains closed due to Covid-19’) and in a further 212 instances, the museum was closed for an unspecified reason although the majority of these are also likely to be due to the pandemic (‘The museum continues to be closed’; ‘We have taken the decision to remain closed during 2021’). There were 42 museums closed for refurbishment and a further 12 references to seasonal closure.  

Extrapolating from our sample, we can conservatively estimate that some 550 museums remained completely closed as of September 2021 for reasons connected to the pandemic, although it is likely that the number is likely to be higher. Beyond this, the other usages of closure we found referred to specific parts of a site (e.g. café, galleries), provided general information on opening and closing times, or less often, references to a museum’s history. That information is itself significant because it indicates that in addition to those museums that were entirely closed, many more museums were still experiencing some degree of closure. Large numbers of museums did not resume ordinary service.

In our future blogs we will be examining how those patterns of closure and re-opening varied according to museum governance and size, and presenting current data.  

Jamie Larkin and Fiona Candlin 

[Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash]

Museums in the Pandemic

Museum websites: What can they tell us?

How have museums fared during the pandemic? What can we learn from their websites? And could we rapidly collect crucial information from museum websites to assess the state of the UK sector? These are the questions that have driven our research since the start of the project in January last year. We are delighted that we now have some answers to share.

Over the past few months we have been studying museum websites to find phrases that might indicate whether museums are at risk of closure. We collected these phrases together and created 6 key indicators. These are whether a museum is open currently or closed currently, has applied for or received funding, pursues online engagement, has staff working, or intends to reopen.

Our computer science team developed a tool to scan museum websites for references to these key phrases. We were able to scan websites for 3,300 museums of the 3,345 in our database. The graph below shows how these indicators changed from March to November 2021.

Each line in the graph shows a different indicator, and the higher a line is, the more museums were found with that indicator. The points on each line refer to a date when we collected data from websites.

So what does the data tell us?

The data suggests that a large proportion of UK museums made efforts to engage with audiences online, and their engagement remained relatively consistent across the period for which we have collected data. At this point in the pandemic, it is likely that museums who want  to engage audiences in this way have developed the means and resources to do so. This tells us that over 80% of UK museums continued to function in some form in this period.

Another key point is that the indicator for closed currently begins to decline and open currently begins to increase from April 2021. These are generalized trends, but they appear to reflect a gradual reopening of museums. This is earlier than the 17th May reopening date for indoor museums. This early move of indicators is perhaps due to museums modifying their websites to indicate forthcoming reopening and also that museums in Scotland and museums with outdoor attractions were able to reopen earlier, such as English Heritage and National Trust properties. Similarly, the indicator for reopening intent peaks between April and May 2021, as museum websites likely reflected their forthcoming reopening plans.

Following the May reopening, an unexpected trend is that reopening intent doesn’t decrease significantly. This may be explained by the fact that although museums could reopen from 17th May, a number chose to remain closed beyond this point for a range of different reasons.

A final point of interest relates to funding. The graph indicates that less than a third of museum websites made any reference to funding, and this decreases after May 2021. As we noted in a previous blog, the emergency funding situation for museums was complex. A preliminary reading of this data may be that it shows a segment of museums appealing for funding or announcing successful applications. We may speculate that these are most likely independent not for profit museums, given that government museums may have been likely to furlough staff and not as reliant on covering additional outgoings. This will be explored further as we examine the data in greater detail in the forthcoming weeks.

Looking ahead

This graph is a snapshot of what the data can tell us. The six indicators can be analyzed across a range of museum characteristics (e.g. size, governance, location) allowing us to understand variance across the sector. In future blogs, we will present more detailed analyses of this data from museum websites. We continue to collect data, and this will enable us to present longer trends as we incorporate new data into our analysis.

As with any exercise that involves automated data collection from a large number of websites, the data is not perfect as we cannot be fully confident that we have accurately identified every museum website. Also, the six indicators are broad categories that span a very varied use of language on websites. Nonetheless we believe that this analysis shows a broadly representative picture of what is going on in the sector. 

We have also designed new software that allows us to drill down into individual websites, which will allow us to fine tune our account, and we have gathered data from museum social media accounts (on Facebook and Twitter). We were able to collect that data over a much longer period, from 2019 until 2021, and that will likely reveal a more nuanced picture of the rush to online engagement at the outset of the pandemic and the first lockdown in March 2020. As 2022 progresses, we will present our findings in further blogs.

Jamie Larkin & Mark Liebenrood

Museums in the Pandemic

New museums opening during the pandemic

When we began the Museums in the Pandemic project, we anticipated that some museums might be forced to close permanently as a result of pandemic restrictions. What we didn’t anticipate is that so many new museums would open during this period. As far as we know, fourteen museums have opened between March 2020 and September 2021. Five opened in 2020 and nine new museums have opened so far this year. Two are run by local authorities, while the rest are independent. Most of the museums were at least at the planning stage before the pandemic began, although in some cases we have not been able to determine when their development initially began.

After the pandemic was officially declared, the first new museum to open was forced to close just a few days later with the announcement of the initial nationwide lockdown in the UK. This was the Malton and Norton Heritage Centre in North Yorkshire, which displays the Woodhams Stone Collection. The collection is an amalgamation of two separate collections acquired by Sid Woodhams, a former curator at Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, and John Stone, former Mayor of Norton, who are long-term friends. Work began on refurbishing a bookmakers’ shop to provide accommodation for the heritage centre in Autumn 2019, and it opened briefly in March 2020 before having to shut its doors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the planned openings were delayed by lockdowns. The first museum to be affected was The River Tweed Salmon Fishing Museum.  It was due to open in May 2020, but the pandemic put paid to those plans and it eventually opened four months later. Based in Kelso, Scotland, the museum was in development for three years by a group of volunteers and tells the story of the fishing techniques that developed in the area and their influence on the development of the Eastern Borders. The displays combine items from several private collections.

A single storey wooden clad building at an angle to us, with a door and three windows. A red sign on the end wall that reads Radlett & District Museum
Radlett and District Museum. Photo courtesy of the museum.

The last museum to open in 2020 was also delayed by the pandemic. The Radlett and District Museum in Hertfordshire is run by the Radlett Archives Group, a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. They initially kept their archives in the local library, but now have permanent, purpose-built premises at the rear of the village institute. The building was constructed in January 2020 but fitting out the museum was held up by the first lockdown. Work resumed in the summer and the museum opened in October 2020. In common with other museums, they were forced to close for the second and third lockdowns but are now open two days a week.

No fewer than three museums opened in May 2021 and all of them had been some years in development. In London’s Covent Garden, Bow Street Police Museum occupies part of the former Bow Street Police Station, which closed in 1992. The adjacent magistrate’s court closed in 2006 and a hotel developer purchased the empty building in 2017. As a condition of granting planning permission for the hotel, Westminster City Council stipulated that a museum be created on the site. An independent curator was commissioned in 2019 and the museum, run by a charity, opened less than two years later.

A cell inside the Bow Street Police Museum. Above a narrow dark wooden bench are displays of photographs and text.
A cell display at Bow Street Police Museum. Photo by Matt Brown

Also in London, Southwark Council redisplayed some of the collection formerly on show in the Cuming Museum, which closed in 2013 after a fire, in the new Southwark Heritage Centre & Walworth Library. Objects are displayed in cases throughout the library, but there is also a separate gallery dedicated to the borough’s heritage. Originally intended to be completed in December 2020, the opening was postponed by five months although it is unclear whether the delay was due to the pandemic.

The third museum to open in May was The Great British Car Journey in Derbyshire. The brainchild of Richard Usher, the collection of cars designed and made in Britain began with an offer of a single car and over the course of four years grew to almost 150 vehicles. The cars are displayed chronologically and around thirty-two are available for visitors to drive. The museum was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but two of the founders faced health problems and the pandemic also contributed to the delay.

The following month, a small local authority museum opened in at the town hall in Leigh, Greater Manchester. The town hall houses the archives of Wigan Borough Council and has undergone a major refurbishment. Originally due to be completed in April 2020, the project was significantly delayed by the pandemic and the town hall eventually reopened in June 2021. Objects from the archives are displayed in a new purpose-built exhibition space that illustrates the history and culture of the borough.

Displays at the Archives Exhibition in Leigh Town Hall. Display panels surround a black metal spinning wheel. An old barber's chair can be seen behind.
Leigh Town Hall Archives Exhibition. Photo by Mark Liebenrood

A major new museum in the Scottish Borders also opened in June 2021, after years of planning. The Great Tapestry of Scotland, in Galashiels, displays a 160-panel tapestry that tells a people’s story of Scotland. A thousand stitchers contributed to the project, which was originally the idea of author Alexander McCall Smith. The tapestry itself first went on show in 2013 and toured a number of venues in Scotland. Plans for a permanent home were in development from 2014 and Galashiels was chosen as the site in 2016. The museum is part of plans to regenerate the town and received capital funding from various bodies including the Scottish Government.

Three museums focused on railway heritage opened in August and September, and all of them were in development well before the pandemic began. A new museum inside Glasgow Central railway station opened in August, having been planned since at least 2019. Developed in collaboration with students from the Glasgow School of Art, the museum tells the story of the station from 1879 with a wide range of objects. Unlike the other museums mentioned here, which are all directly open to the public, this one is only accessible during guided tours of the station.

Interior of Glasgow Central Station Museum. On the left wall is a large illuminated station clock, and on the right wall are lamps, signals and other objects.
Glasgow Central Station Museum. Photo courtesy of Network Rail

Along similar lines is the Doncaster Rail Heritage Centre, which opened in September after years of planning by Heritage Doncaster. The Centre is housed in the Danum complex that includes a library and two other museums, and the core of the collection comes from Doncaster Grammar School’s Railway Society, which began collecting in 1948. The National Railway Museum has loaned two locomotives, both built in Doncaster, to complement the other exhibits.

The most recent of these railway museums to open is in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire. The Weighbridge Museum is the result of years of work by the Bishop’s Castle Railway Heritage Society. The project began in 2017 with a derelict weighbridge building, and after sustained effort from a group of volunteers and some professional builders, the museum opened in September 2021. It records the history of the Bishop’s Castle Railway, opened in 1865, that joined the town to Craven Arms, ten miles away.

There are a few museums that opened in this period where we know much less about how long they were in development before opening. One was the first new museum to open after the initial UK lockdown was lifted. It is dedicated to the footballer Duncan Edwards, and opened in Dudley in the West Midlands in August 2020. Situated above a shop and run by a charitable foundation that was founded two years earlier, the museum tells the story of Edwards, who played for Manchester United. He was amongst the team members in the 1958 Munich air crash and died in hospital fifteen days later at the age of twenty-one. The museum includes a display on the Munich disaster and period rooms focussed on Edwards’ life.

Also opened in August 2020 was a new museum devoted to Cockney Heritage. It was founded by George Major, the Pearly King of Peckham. It isn’t clear how long George had been planning the museum for, but he began collecting cockney heritage sixty years ago after becoming concerned about that heritage being lost. The museum features a mock-up of a nineteenth-century street and a display of pearly king and queen suits adorned with mother-of-pearl buttons. Traditionally a cockney is anyone born within the sound of London’s Bow Bells, but the Original Cockney Museum is in Epsom, Surrey, a site chosen for its much lower running costs than central London.

Exterior of the National Film and Science Fiction Museum in Milton Keynes. A two-storey building in stone or concrete, with large windows. Through an upstairs window can be seen figures including a dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda and a silver dalek.
The National Film and Science Fiction Museum in Milton Keynes. Photo courtesy of the museum.

Lastly, Milton Keynes gained a new independent museum in August 2021 with the opening of the National Film and Sci-Fi Museum. Building work was underway in December 2020, but we don’t know how long the museum was in development before that. The collection includes costumes, props, and images from film and television productions including Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter. Run by a charity, the museum is also connected to a company that runs events for film and comics fans.

The pandemic has doubtless presented numerous challenges to museums, but it has not prevented many new museum projects from coming to fruition. Some of them had been in development for years, with the collection now on show at the Malton and Norton Heritage Centre being formally established a decade earlier and the Great Tapestry of Scotland first going on show in 2013. Other projects have had shorter timescales, but many of them have been delayed by lockdowns. We began our research into this period expecting it to be marked by permanent closures, so it has been a welcome surprise to see so many museums opening.

Mark Liebenrood

(header image by Leo Reynolds)

Museums in the Pandemic

Micromuseums in the pandemic

How have small, independent museums coped during the pandemic? To find out more I talked to the staff at five museums, all of which are led by volunteers. Their experiences were very varied but it was striking that none of them had struggled financially, indeed one had flourished beyond all expectation, and that the main challenges concerned their volunteers.

Brynmawr and District Museum in the South Wales Valleys is a local history museum with a strong focus on furniture made as part of the Brynmawr Experiment, a Quaker scheme aimed at providing employment in the area during the 1920s and 30s. They took the most lo-fi approach to the pandemic of the museums that we visited in that they simply shut the building and remained closed until June 2021. Like other museums in Wales they were automatically awarded a business rates grant and this covered their gas and electricity bills, which were lower than previous years. Volunteers checked the building on a twice-weekly basis and took advantage of closure to repair some faulty lighting, replace the blinds on the windows, and have the carpet deep cleaned. Otherwise they waited for when they could re-open. The museum has a core group of around ninety supporters who pay an annual subscription and meet for coffee every Thursday morning. Vivienne Williams, one of the original founders and the museum secretary said that everyone had missed the museum. ‘It’s a hub, a social hub’, she explained, ‘they just love the place’. Despite being in her eighties, Viv had no concerns about returning to the museum and said that her fellow volunteers felt likewise: when we spoke, Covid rates were low in the area and the group had all been double vaccinated.

Four men wearing long aprons stand in a furniture workshop. Two are sanding and planing wood, another assembling parts, a third appears to be preparing varnish. A chair stands on its back feet in the foreground, its frame held together with long metal clamps.
Workers at the Brynmawr Factory 1939, People’s Collection Wales

When I asked Viv if they had developed the museums online activity during the pandemic, she replied ‘No, no, no, nothing like that, we’re all too old for that, Fiona’. Paul Cowan, one of the co-founders and chair of the Pewsey Heritage Centre in Wiltshire made exactly the same remark. Like Brynmawr Museum, they had more or less mothballed throughout the pandemic with two Local Restrictions Support grants from Wiltshire council enabling them to cover costs. These grants went to business-rate payers to help alleviate loss of income during the pandemic. 

A large stone building with a pitched roof. Large glazed entrance doors with grey frames are topped by an etched sign entitled heritage centre around a line diagram of a wheel. The entrance is flanked by white painted arched windows, two on each side. A small clock is above, just below the angle of the roof.
Pewsey Heritage Centre

When we spoke in May 2021, Paul was worried about having enough volunteers to re-open on a regular basis. The museum, which is housed in a Victorian foundry and concentrates on the local history of the area, usually opens six days a week and they need between 35 and 40 people to keep running. There are two stewards on duty at any time, while other volunteers clean the building, or organise and run events that help generate an income. Most of the volunteers are elderly. Four died during the pandemic (although not from Covid) and many of the others were uneasy about coming back. However, five new volunteers from a different demographic had joined the team. One woman had commuted to London on a daily basis and during the pandemic had started working from home. She suddenly had four extra hours a day at her disposal. Another new volunteer worked at a nearby laboratory and had felt it was time to put something back into the community. In Pewsey restrictions on movement led to residents having greater available time and on focusing their attention on their immediate area, and this resulted in younger volunteers coming forwards. Even so, the museum group still needs more help.

Ingrow Loco

There were no such problems with volunteers returning to Ingrow Loco, a railway museum in Keighley, North Yorkshire. The rolling stock is regularly hired out for use by heritage railways or for special events and so it has to meet modern safety standards and is subject to ongoing testing and maintenance. The museum chairman, Keith Whitmore, explained that ‘a lot of our volunteers are of an age, but nevertheless the engineers were very keen to come back and do some workshop tasks’. The volunteers argued that maintaining the rolling stock was essential work and was therefore permitted under pandemic regulations. The trustees did a risk assessment, took advice from one of their trustees who was also a medic, and then agreed that volunteers could return to work if they socially distanced. Keith said ‘youve also got to take wellbeing into account: not just the Covid virus but mental health as well’. For the volunteers, working at the museum was sufficiently important that it overrode their other concerns.

The entrance to Ingrow Loco museum. The building is constructed from large blocks of warm yellow stone and the two doors are painted in burgundy red. A sign above the entrance reads Ingrow Loco in gold on a deep red background. Below is a smaller curved sign that reads Bahamas. A cobbled road leads off to the right where it meets a ramp descending from the side of the building.
Ingrow Loco

Unlike any of the other museums we visited, Ingrow Loco re-opened in the summer and autumn of 2020. The museum is on the Keighley and Worth Valley Heritage Railway and in normal circumstances the steam locomotives stop outside, dropping off potential visitors. However, during the pandemic, the railway decided to run a non-stopping service as having groups of people getting on and off made it difficult to manage social distancing. As a result, potential museum visitors just went steaming past. To make matters worse, the railway normally subsidised a vintage bus tour that enabled visitors to take the train one way and then return by road, stopping off at villages along the way. This had benefits for Ingrow Loco in that it brought more visitors to the door. Under financial pressure, the railway withdrew those funds and the bus service ceased, further reducing the number of museum visitors.

The furlough scheme and business grants helped Ingrow Loco manage its costs when closed. Once they opened they were eligible for a Local Restrictions Support Grant (open) that mitigated reduced income and they successfully applied for National Lottery Heritage Emergency Funds. These helped subsidise the vintage bus tour and thereby increase footfall to both the museum and the railway. It also enabled them to install contactless payment and to promote the 45596 Bahamas locomotive. Careful marketing generated interest in the south of England and for the first time since the 1960s the Bahamas ran on a number of rail tours that departed from London, generating income to help cover the costs of maintaining the engine. This year the museum re-opened in July and had a busy August, with visitors returning in greater numbers, although they are still below the numbers required to break even. 

Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre

Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre was unable to re-open, but used the period of closure to their advantage. Samantha Parker differs from the other volunteer staff we talked to by dint of her youth. Having been a trainee at Norfolk Museums Service, she became a volunteer collections manager and trustee at Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre, and was made vice-chair of trustees this summer. She is also looking for paid employment. She explained that when lockdown started their first concern was for their volunteers. As Sam said ‘we didn’t want them to think they’d been abandoned’ and they duly set up a WhatsApp group and arranged Saturday zoom lunchtimes for when volunteers would usually be on-site. As at Pewsey Heritage Centre, many of the volunteers were vulnerable and were shielding, and others were uneasy about returning. The ensuing lack of stewards meant that the visitor centre was unable to re-open during summer 2020. Others, particularly those involved in maintaining the exhibitions, were keen to come back and in spring 2021, they redecorated the building. The site was originally a World War 2 airbase and the buildings are badly insulated, cold, and expensive to heat, and so are usually kept closed over the winter and for the rest of the year they are open to the public, which makes the timing of any major maintenance work difficult. On this occasion, volunteers could repaint the walls in a socially distanced way and in relative warmth.

A single-storey pink building with two smaller extensions stands at an angle to our viewpoint. A black door at the right-hand end of the building, and small rectangular windows punctuate the length of the buidling just below the roofs. The building is surrounded by grass, with a path running in front of it. Above is a blue sky with light cloud. Telegraph wires run across the image and a pole stands to the left of the building.
Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre

Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre was eligible for business grants that covered their basic outgoing, and they got a North Kesteven District Council restart grant that allowed them to redevelop the kitchen and run a café. With the centre’s costs in hand, the trustees started to meet on a weekly basis to plan in the long term. They had been intending to apply for Community Interest Status, and being closed to the public gave them the time to do so. It also prompted them to look more closely at the organisation and they considered each trustee role in detail, how to diversify their trustees, volunteer recruitment, governance, and their other activities. These meetings culminated in a ten-year strategic plan and in recruiting a new trustee who promptly led on a successful bid for Cultural Recovery Funding. This enabled them to purchase PPE, to employ a freelancer to improve their digital presence, and to open an online shop. They re-opened over the summer of 2021. The café has been a hit and they are already planning for next year.

Museum of North Craven Life

Ingrow Loco and Metheringham Airfield Visitor centre both successfully fund raised during the pandemic. The Museum of North Craven Life in Settle, North Yorkshire took that to a different level. The museum occupies a seventeenth-century Grade 1 listed historic house that has variously been a farmhouse, a bakery, warehouse, furniture shop, fish and chip shop, bank, and salvage business. In 2019 Anne Read who had co-founded the museum in 1977 stepped down as its Honorary Curator. The new incumbent Heather Lane, who had previously managed the redevelopment of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, took up the post in autumn of that year, intending it to be a project for her semi-retirement. One of Heather’s first moves was to have the building surveyed by Historic England and unfortunately they found that the building was in worse condition than anyone had previously realised. The roof was leaking badly, some of the timbers were rotten, floors were sagging, there was no insulation, and the windows needed replacing. There were also other problems. The museum café was at the opposite end of the building to the kitchen and catering staff had to walk back and forth through the reception area, tea-trays in hand.

A large building covered in scaffolding, the uuper part of which is wrapped in plastic sheeting that reflects the sunlight. A sign for the Heritage Lottery Fund is affixed to the bottom left of the scaffold. A road runs past, leading off to the right.
The Museum of North Craven Life covered in scaffolding.

They were also short of volunteers. There were particular conditions at the Museum of North Craven Life that underpinned this problem. In 2018 a new heritage development officer had introduced a more professional approach to curating and while this raised standards it also marginalised some of the volunteers. As Heather explained, the volunteers previously had total responsibility for exhibitions. Now, feeling that someone else could do the work they stepped back. The sense that they had to step up or no-one else would had been a strong motivating force for the group, and that was now lost. The change in process loosely coincided with Anne stepping down. Recognising that it was the end of an era several other long-term volunteers decided to do likewise. Heather wanted to go back to the original model and for the volunteers to be ‘completely engaged in the research so they feel like there’s something really worthwhile in coming in and working. There might need to be a bit of steering, but we’re not there to say this is how you do an exhibition’.

And then the pandemic started. Heather started applying for funding and was awarded substantial grants from the National Lottery Heritage Emergency Fund and both rounds of Cultural Recovery Funding, as well as smaller grants from the East Riding council and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also recruited a recently retired chartered accountant, Richard Greenhalgh as trustee and treasurer. Like Heather he was slightly taken aback by the magnitude of the task in hand, commenting that ‘I didn’t expect to be running a small company with hundreds of thousands pounds worth of grants going through it. I thought it was going to be a “on the back of an envelope” type of post’. 

The accrued funding covered the refurbishment of the building in line with heritage standards. Window frames and timbers were replaced, and the building was replastered using traditional techniques that allow the structure to breathe. The wood ash and horse hair required for lime mortar and plaster was supplied by local residents who left it in large bins outside the museum. An old garage immediately next to the café was converted into a convenient and good-sized kitchen, and the previous kitchen was transformed into an archive, providing space for a recently acquired collection of around one thousand glass negatives and numerous prints. The pictures were taken by the Horners, a local photography firm run by three generations of the same family between 1860 and 1960 and depict Settle and its residents, often showing the same people over a number of decades.

The funding also paid for new IT systems and for two heritage development officers to be appointed. Kirsty Mitchell was hired for six months and she overhauled recruitment for the volunteers and trustees, surveyed the volunteers and worked on ways to keep them involved during the pandemic. She set up a Tuesday tea break with mini-lectures on what was happening behind the scenes at the museum. Caitlin Greenwood re-organised the museum shop and commissioned a new website, working closely with the designers to put existing exhibitions online. She also began planning and co-curating new exhibitions with volunteers and a group of local historians. A freelancer was hired to develop online resources for schoolchildren at Key Stages 2 and 3, and a new group of dedicated volunteers are digitising the Horner collection. As Heather said, ‘it’s been really extraordinary to have a pause and to put the museum back on its feet. The museum had to be made sound, we needed to have good infrastructure, to rebuild our relationship with volunteers, and do some business planning. Those were the essentials and with the grant funding we’ve been able to do pretty much all of that’. 

A large building constructed from varying sizes of stone blocks. Numerous windows of different shapes and sizes punctuate the frontage. Two black entrance doors with steps in front are to the left and centre.
The Folly, home to the Museum of North Craven Life, in June 2021

Then, in May 2021, just as the museum was preparing to re-open to the public, a huge crack appeared in the tower housing the central staircase. While it is free to go into the downstairs spaces, there is an admissions charge for the main exhibitions, which are housed upstairs. The crack meant that the upper floors could not be re-opened, which had serious implications for their income, as Heather said, ‘We’re looking at a black hole in our revenue’. Fortunately the café had did extremely well over the summer, generating just enough income to tide the museum through a few more months, and Heather is now in the process of applying for further grants, both to have structural work done on the tower, and to cover the ongoing shortfall in income.

Benefits and difficulties

During the pandemic, small independent museums had the advantage of being able to easily close. Their running costs are generally quite low and the Local Restrictions Support Grant was sufficient to pay their immediate bills. Ingrow Loco and the Museum of North Craven Life furloughed their paid cleaning, catering, front of house and project staff, but in both cases the senior management roles are held by volunteers who were able to carry on working during lockdown. Thus, the strategic work necessary for re-development and re-opening could continue without incurring cost, as was also the case at Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre.

Ingrow Loco struggled the most because they re-opened and actively worked to attract an audience, which proved difficult due to circumstances beyond their control. For both Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre and the Museum of North Craven Life, the pandemic gave the staff time to recalibrate, to rethink their organisation, and to apply for grants. Although it was personally demanding for many of those involved, on a whole range of levels, the closure of the museums proved an opportunity rather than a disaster.

Volunteers and trustees

For me, the most consistent theme to emerge across the five conversations was that of the volunteers. It was clear that the museums often played a central role in the lives of the volunteers, particularly at Brynmawr Museum and Ingrow Loco, and that during lockdown they had felt the loss of the social interaction and practical activity that it usually offered. It was also noticeable that participation differed considerably depending on the volunteers’ roles. At Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre, the people who usually stewarded the exhibitions did not generally participate in the zoom lunchtimes and were reluctant to return to the museum whereas those who had a curatorial role were ‘champing at the bit’ to return to work. A similar situation obtained at Pewsey Heritage Centre. They also struggled to find enough people to supervise the museum during opening hours, but simultaneously had new volunteers coming forwards to take on the more complicated tasks of accessioning the collections. It may be that the more committed and enthusiastic volunteers are those that have the more complex roles. Alternatively, having a challenge and responsibility may create and reinforce commitment. All the people we spoke to are themselves examples of highly committed volunteers undertaking complex and responsible work, particularly Sam and Heather.

Almost all the museums wanted or needed to recruit new and younger volunteers. This was particularly urgent in Settle where a core group of long-standing volunteers had all simultaneously retired. Again one of the issues here was that they had less responsibility than previously and were feeling a little disenfranchised. But it was also noticeable that a combination of strategic recruiting and the effects of the pandemic meant that museums were able to attract new people and a wider range of people than previously. And finally, it was clear that the trustees, who are also volunteers, and especially new trustees with particular specialisms were key to improving the museums’ capacities and offer during the pandemic.

Fiona Candlin

Museums in the Pandemic

Funding for UK museums during the pandemic

When the pandemic first broke, commentators forecasted large-scale closures in the UK museum sector.  In fact, as we discussed in our previous blog, there have been very few permanent closures.

Emergency funding has had a direct bearing on how museums have weathered the past year. Given that our project ‘Museums in the Pandemic’ examines risk, closure, and resilience in the UK museum sector during the COVID crisis, it is important for us to understand what emergency funding was on offer and to whom. In particular, we wanted to know whether there had been any gaps in the funding – if certain types of museums had been ineligible for funding – and so we duly embarked on compiling a list of the funding streams available to museums. We noted the source of funding, who administered it, the aims of each funding stream, total money allocated, the maximum and minimum amounts on offer to each institution, and the eligibility criteria. The list grew and grew.

In this blog we make our spreadsheet available for general use. Please let us know if you can fill in any of the blanks or if you can add to, clarify, or correct the information we present here. 

Download the data (Excel file in xlsx format; last updated 16 July 2021)

Initial Observations

In order to help us make sense of our expanding list we spoke to people who had been involved in organising or allocating the funding. Here we make some brief, preliminary observations on funding during the pandemic. This is work in progress so, again, we welcome any comments.

In total, over fifty new funding streams were open to museums. Some organisations re-allocated existing funding, and new funds were made available, principally through the Cultural Recovery Fund.

Large numbers of organisations were involved in allocating and administering funding to museums. These include: Arts Council England; Arts Council Northern Ireland; Art Fund; Business Wales; CADW; Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy; Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Federation of Museums and Galleries in Wales; Garfield Weston Foundation; HM Revenue and Customs; Historic England; Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government; Museums Archives, Libraries Division Wales; Museums Development Network; Museums Galleries Scotland; National Lottery Heritage Fund; Northern Ireland Museums Council; HM Treasury; Visit Wales; and around 400 local authorities. Some of these organisations administered several funding streams and some organisations collaborated on providing grants. In some cases one organisation provided the funding and another oversaw its allocation, for example National Lottery Heritage Funds provided bulk of the funding for the Emergency Recovery Funds, but it was administered by Arts Council England. 

Some funding was available to museums across the UK, other streams were particular to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or combinations thereof. The grants had different criteria including governance, accreditation status, and the museums’ financial position.

The Emergency and Cultural Recovery Funds were open to museums at risk. In the first instance, this meant that they had less than three months operating costs. However, there was a lack of clarity about the status of financial reserves that had been earmarked for specific projects. Arts Council England report that they were strict about insisting on the use of reserves, apart from when they were legally restricted to a designated use, whereas the National Lottery Heritage Fund took a more lenient view. 

Museums were also been eligible for a number of grants and other support schemes that were aimed at businesses more generally. These included the job retention scheme, Statutory Sick Pay rebates, VAT deferral, various government-backed loans, and rate relief. As was the case for the targeted grants, this business support has been administered by a range of different bodies.

The number of funding streams and the variety of their remits makes it extremely difficult to establish whether particular types of museums fell through the gaps. However, there do seem to have been some pinch points:

  • Small museums often only required small amounts of funding, for instance for PPE or to help staff work from home. The first major grant, the Emergency Response fund had a minimum of £35,000. Thus in the first instance, there was no available funding for small museums.
  • England used the same £35,000 threshold for the Cultural Recovery Fund funding stream. Other national bodies had a much lower threshold for grants. In Wales there was no minimum. The Treasury discouraged Arts Council England from offering lower grants because of the amount of administration involved, and as things stood, they processed more than 6,000 applications in the first six months of the pandemic.
  • Accredited museums were directed to apply for funding to ACE, MALD and Museums Galleries Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Museums Council as appropriate, with non-accredited museums being directed to the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As the National Lottery Heritage Fund had a minimum threshold of £3,000, non-accredited museums could usefully access smaller grants whereas accredited museums could not. In practice, however, there was a degree of blur between the two schemes with some accredited museums also gaining funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Small grants with no minimum threshold were later made available across the UK by the Museums Development Network and Art Fund.
  • The National Lottery Heritage Fund specified that applicants had to already be in receipt of public money. That is, they had already received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund or an arms-length body. Museums that had never received funding were ineligible to apply.
  • Local Authority museums have to go through internal council procedures in order to gain permission to apply for external funding. In these cases, much depended on the responsiveness, capacity and flexibility of the individual council. Similar conditions apply to many University museums.

Plotting the different funding streams and their remits is a challenge and in a few cases it has not been clear to us whether museums were eligible. We were unsurprised to hear that some museums also struggled to negotiate this complex terrain and that staff from the Museums Development Network had to act as translators and guides for some of the smaller museums. Yet, despite the complexity of emergency funding, the lack of closures indicates that the schemes were collectively successful in helping museums through this difficult period.

Over the next few months, we will be reporting in more detail on how the different types of museums have fared during the pandemic, and the specific challenges they have managed and continue to face.

Fiona Candlin and Mark Liebenrood. July 2021.

(Image by Adam Heath on Flickr)