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 

Research Process

Surveying museums: What’s in and what’s out?

We began the Mapping Museum research by investigating the numerous surveys and reviews of UK museums that have been compiled since the 1960s. Our intention was to use that material as the basis for our own dataset, but it gradually became clear that the various government and charitable bodies who had conducted the surveys or collated the lists did not always include or exclude the same venues. They all had subtly different ideas of what a museum was.

Clearly, the motivations for surveying museums vary depending upon the remit of the association or body that is conducting the survey. If a review is focused on state support then there is little reason in spending time and money investigating independent museums, art galleries without collections, and examining regimental collections would be pointless if the survey is meant to look at the role of university museums. It is not that the surveys have been inaccurate, or that we should advocate for a more perfect overview, rather that they are designed for particular purposes within specific contexts. Even so, the selectivity of a survey does matter, especially when they concern museums in general. In adopting one set of terms over another, or in deciding that a particular category of venues do or do not fall within their purview, surveys diverge in how they constitute museums. They have each understood museums to be slightly different entities, and this has an impact on how they portray the sector as a whole.

In this and the next two posts I will consider some of the types of venues that have been included or excluded from surveys, and as they are the main focus of our study, I will begin with independent museums.


Independent museums: In or Out?

In 1963, the Standing Commission stressed that they had considered ‘museums run by every sort of authority’. They listed local authority museums, those run by the Ministry of Public Buildings and works (which later became Historic Buildings Commission, then English Heritage), military, school and university museums and finally ‘privately-run museums’ of which a few belong to commercial firms, some to local learned societies, and almost all the rest …. are administered by trusts’. At this stage, who ran the museums, under what governance, and with what degree of professionalism, was less important than the fact they were a museum, and what constituted a museum was not raised as a question. Surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s were similarly inclusive but that situation had changed by the 1990s.

The shift in approach was motivated by an increasing emphasis on professionalization and specifically accreditation. In 1971 the Museums Association proposed a voluntary accreditation scheme, which would set basic standards in the sector. In order to be accredited, museums had to comply with the association’s benchmarks and with their definition of a museum. Responding to the plan, which was presented at the Museums Association Annual General Meeting, one speaker observed that many small independent museums would find it difficult to meet the first essential minimum requirement, namely, that they had sufficient income to ‘carry out and develop the work of the museum to satisfactory professional standards’. More than that, the accreditation process introduced a definition of a museum for the first time, and as the speaker also commented, it referred to museums as institutions, which the small independent venues were not.

Initially accreditation was voluntary and was run in a relatively ad-hoc way, but in 1984 it was taken over by the Museums Libraries Archives Council and became more closely connected to funding. Museums had to be accredited in order to qualify for public support and so membership of the scheme became increasingly ubiquitous. It also began to be used as the basis for surveys and lists. DOMUS, which was the most comprehensive survey of museums in the UK, only included accredited institutions and omitted an estimated 700 non-accredited museums. At one point the DOMUS team did consider the possibility of including non-accredited museums and of generating a more comprehensive view of the sector but it came to nothing, not least because the survey data was gathered in tandem with the annual accreditation returns, and so there was no process for collecting information on these additional museums.

The situation, wherein small independent museums did not meet the requisite standards and therefore were largely absent from official data, was exacerbated when the definition of museums changed in 1998. The new definition added a legal stipulation, which was that museums had to keep their collections ‘in trust for society’. Again, this concerned the contract between museums and the public because establishing museums as trusts helps ensure that collections are not sold or used for private gain, which is especially important when funding is involved. The result was that from this point onwards any museums that were run on an ad-hoc basis with little official governance, were constituted as commercial enterprises, or were owned by families, individuals, or businesses, ceased to appear in official data. Likewise, museums that did meet the terms set by the Museums Association definition, but had decided not to seek accreditation fell off the official lists.

The Museums Association definition works well as an aspirational target or a guide for professional practice, but it does not describe museums in the world at large. Similarly, accreditation is a useful means of ensuring some accountability with respect to public funding, as is the stipulation that museums should have particular modes of governance. National funding bodies do need to keep track of the museums that have been accredited and are eligible for state support. Nonetheless, using accreditation as a mechanism for collecting information about museums has resulted in a skewed view of the sector. Surveys are structured in such a way that they can only encompass museums that have achieved a particular level of professionalization.

To draw an analogy, imagine that a professional association of musicians declared that music needed to be made within a certain legal context and to be of a certain standard in order for it to count as such. The outputs of community choirs, folk musicians, pub bands, would no longer qualify as music unless they had established themselves as trusts. Yet, in the case of museums, such a definition has been widely adopted and implemented. The museum equivalents of pub bands do not appear in official surveys. In consequence, they do not figure in accounts of the sector or to a large extent in academic histories of museums. It is, as if museums only operate within the sphere of official culture.

Interestingly, some unaccredited museums appear in the Museum Association Yearbooks and more recently on their online Find-a-Museum Service. Although the Museums Association has been one of the main drivers in setting standards and establishing definitions of museums, they are also reliant on membership fees for income. Anyone who pays to join can submit their details, and the Association do not police entries according to their own criteria, since that would result in a drop in revenue. There is some irony in this situation. The Museums Association’s work on establishing definitions has resulted in smaller museums being excluded from official consideration but nonetheless its publications and website are among the few places where non-accredited museums are listed. The Mapping Museums team has used and is greatly extending that data on unaccredited museums, and will be publishing lists of museums in general, not just those that meet professional criteria.


© Fiona Candlin November 2017

Research Process

Problems with the Data

When I first began this research I had assumed that there was very little data on the museums that were founded in the late twentieth century. In fact, the contrary is true. A great deal of information has been collected about museums from the 1960s onwards. By our reckoning there were at least nine major cross-UK surveys, three that concentrated on Wales, two on Ireland, and one apiece on museums in Scotland and England. Dozens of smaller surveys concentrated on specific regions or aspects of the sector, Arts Council England keeps lists of museums across the UK, and the Museums Association runs a Find-A-Museum service. Why then, is it so hard to get information about the rising numbers of museums? In this blog I identify five reasons why this massive amount of data has not translated into information.


  1. Lost data

The first major survey that falls within our time period is the Standing Commission Report on Provincial Museums of 1963. Very conveniently, it is available in print form from major public libraries, and contains both the final report of the committee and a complete list of museums sorted according to region. From there onwards, however, the raw data largely disappears from government publications on the subject. The 1973 Standing Commission report, for instance, enumerates the different types of museums and provides an overview of emerging trends, but it does not provide a list of museums or the information that relates to individual venues, which we need if we are to track the emergence and development of the sector. As far as we know, the original data that was collected for that survey and for subsequent surveys conducted by the Standing Commission has been lost.

Research on museums conducted by other organisations is similarly missing. In 1983, the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) undertook a large-scale survey of that sector, but they do not seem to have published a report, and initially we were only aware of the survey’s existence from a handful of references in other contemporaneous sources. After some time, however, we found photocopies of the typewritten lists and the original survey questionnaires lodged in a university archive. We have been less successful in finding the information associated with the ‘UK Data base project’ of 1987. The Museums Association, which ran the survey, has a small in-house archive and its historic materials are kept at University College London. Unfortunately, neither archive contains any of the relevant materials. No-body in either organisation has any recollection of the survey taking place or any idea of where the material went, although it is likely that the UK Data base materials were thrown out when the Museums Association moved offices earlier this century.

  1. Indecipherable data

A second problem for researchers interested in the museums of the late twentieth century is whether the data is usable or not. One of the most important surveys of UK museums was the

Digest of Museum Statistics, otherwise known as DOMUS. From 1994 to 1998, it collected information on all accredited museums, some 1700, and generated a huge amount of material. When the project was closed, most of the paperwork was deposited in the National Archives and so researchers can easily find and download documents pertaining to the surveys. The problem is, the material is difficult to decipher. As well as some documentary material, the archive consists of three folders, each containing around fifty files that contain the raw data from DOMUS. All of the folders and files have coded names. The files comprise of spreadsheets with numerous columns that have similarly opaque headings. Some sheets are virtually empty, while others contain over two thousand entries. There is no explanation as to how these tables relate to each other, what the files or columns refer to, or how the user is supposed to decipher them. Using this data requires someone to unlock the coding system and re-constitute the original database.

  1. Data that is not easily accessible

The Museums Association currently compiles the most extensive dataset relating to UK museums. Their Find-A-Museum service lists information on the whereabouts, visitor numbers, staff, subject matter and governance of around two thousand museums. However, the Museums Association is a commercial enterprise and accessing this data incurs a fee. Users must pay to join the association and cover the subscription charges for the Find A Museum Service, at a minimum cost of around £186 for an individual or £450 for an organisation. In addition, the data cannot be downloaded or manipulated, and can only be examined via the service’s own rather limited search engine. Find-A-Museum is intended for museum professionals who want to look up information on specific venues, and is not designed with researchers in mind, but it does mean that one of the most substantial data sources on museums to be available in the UK cannot be used for broader analysis.

Other lists and surveys of museums are compiled by the various government bodies that oversee museums, namely, the Arts Council England (ACE), the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC), Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), and the Welsh Museums, Archives, Libraries Division (MALD). These organisations do not publish their data although they do make it available on request and without charge. In our experience, the four government bodies have been very helpful in the provision of data but we are aware that they do not have staff whose role it is to deal with such requests and there is no automatic or established mechanism by which data can be obtained.


  1. Incompatible data formats

Having acquired data from the various surveys and lists conducted by ACE, NIMC, MGS, and MALD, researchers will find that each of the government bodies collects different data, with significant variations in the level of detail, and about slightly different kinds of organisations over a range of dates. The spreadsheets cannot be simply merged. Moreover, if researchers want to include historic data, as we do, this all has to be transcribed by hand.


  1. Partial and missing data

On collating the available information, researchers might spot a further problem, which is that surveys and lists compiled by government bodies invariably concentrate on accredited museums. The accreditation scheme, which is co-ordinated by Arts Council England, establishes that a museum has achieved professional standards, but small independent museums often lack the staff or the know-how to apply for accreditation, or may not meet the criteria set by the scheme. Museums Galleries Scotland and the Museums Archives Libraries Division in Wales invite non-accredited museums to make themselves known and they do list such venues in their reports and on websites, although submitting data still requires a certain degree of professional capacity or interest. Thus as far as the official reports are concerned, small independent museums are routinely omitted. Indeed, the only survey to have actively sought information on such venues was the one conducted by AIM in 1982/3, and never published.

There are also other omissions. Properties owned by the National Trust register in some surveys and not in others, while few surveys include art galleries that do not have permanent collections, so established venues such as the Baltic in Newcastle or the Whitechapel in London rarely appear in the data.

Finally, information that is essential to a historically minded researcher is less relevant to museum professionals who focus on the current environment. Only one of the surveys registered the foundation dates of museums, and none have listed closure. Once the doors of a museum have been shut to the public, that venue ceases to appear in surveys.


In summary, then: Over the last five decades several associations and government departments have collected an enormous amount of information about UK museums. There is no lack of data. There are problems with archiving, making that information comprehensible and accessible, with sharing data across national and organisational borders, with collecting historical data and information on venues that do not reach professional standards or that do not quite fit an orthodox model of museums, and on compiling data. These factors help explain why researchers cannot elucidate recent developments within the museum sector and specifically the emergence of independent museums. There is a wider question, however, about why arts organisations seem to have been so poor at keeping, managing and sharing data. Thoughts on that matter would be welcome, as indeed would any clues as to the whereabouts of the data collected for the 1987 UK Museums database project and for Standing Commission surveys other than the 1963 publication.

©Fiona Candlin May 2017