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 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

Research Process

Visiting micromuseums in a pandemic

Everyone’s plans have been disrupted by the pandemic and mine are no exception. I’d just started writing a book on why thousands of people set up their own museums and part of the research involved meeting the founders. I was going to visit around forty museums, the furthest north being the Laidhay Croft Museum in Caithness, and the most southerly Perranzabuloe Museum in Cornwall. I’d also planned on visiting museums at pretty much every point in between as well as having a trip to Northern Ireland.

In March, when all the museums closed and my plans were stymied, I stayed indoors and wrote as much as I could using my colleague Toby’s interview research (See my last blog). He’d spent a year interviewing museum founders as part of the Mapping Museums research project, there was plenty of material for me to work with, and we’d always planned that I’d use his research for the book. Nonetheless, it got to the point where I simply needed to see the museums for myself and to ask my own questions. I also wanted to visit some extra museums that would provide different perspectives on the subjects raised in the first round of interviews.

Over the summer, some museums re-opened but many small museums postponed opening until spring 2021, and so I wondered about delaying my research. I would only be able to visit some of the museums on my list, the founders are usually elderly and may be justifiably anxious about meeting me, and I felt uneasy about making dozens of train journeys and staying in multiple hotels. I would get on with my other research in the interim. Then, during the summer, I was talking over the situation with a close friend who is the director of an independent museum and she advised the opposite. Small museums were struggling, she said, and it was likely that some of them may never re-open. If I could get to see them now, then I should take that opportunity. It might be important to document them while they were still there.

I started telephoning the staff at the museums I wanted to visit and almost everybody said, ‘yes, come’. Some people were routinely checking the museum one day a week and suggested that I accompany them, or they were happy to open up the museum for a special visit so long as I socially distanced and wore a mask. Several of the founders suggested I visit them at home so that we could sit in the garden. The research was back on.

That left me with the problem of travel and hotels. In 2012 I had hired a campervan to explore small museums for my last book Micromuseology: An analysis of small independent museums. Since then, the price of hiring a campervan has risen steeply and as we are now at the end of the Mapping Museums project there wasn’t enough money left in the budget to cover the costs. However, for several years I have thought about buying a campervan and have day-dreamed of epic journeys across Europe. Those daydreams became considerably more vivid under lockdown and I decided to go ahead. I could use a van for the Mapping Museums research trip, travel safely in a relatively controlled environment, I would reduce the risk to myself and to the people I was visiting, and next year I’d set off for Spain, or Romania, or Italy. All I needed was the van. That proved to be a saga in its own right and in the next blog I’ll detail some of my campervan-related trials.

Fiona Candlin

Museums in the Pandemic

Coronavirus and Museum Resilience: Some preliminary observations

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led to virtually all UK museums being closed. The issue at hand is whether these temporary closures may become permanent, and which museums are likely to be the most resilient, both in the short and long term.    

Of all the museums that have existed since 1960 (when our data collection begins), 18% have closed. However, rate of closure varies by museum governance. 34% of privately-owned museums and 21% of local authority museums have closed, whereas closure rates among national and not for profit museums are comparatively low at 9.5% and 8.5% respectively. Small museums are also much more likely to close than medium, large or huge museums.

These closures took place under very different circumstances to those we face today. Never before has the entire UK museum sector shutdown in this way, challenging the basic operating model of attracting visitors to physical sites. Here we consider what light our data might shed on the current situation.

Independent museums: private

Private museums tend to be owned and operated by individuals or volunteer groups, or are run as a business or are attached to one: they can span a museum in a living room, a privately-owned historic house, or a museum of a large company. In each instance they usually operate outside of the frameworks of professional museum support. Historically, closure rates are high. This can be because the owner has retired and sold assets, because there has been little succession planning, or because the business runs into financial difficulty, resulting in the sale of a site or collection. COVID-19 is a (relatively) short-term threat that presents an acute danger to museum owners’ health and their finances. But the threat posed will likely be different for private museums based on their size and scope.

Private museums that open on an ad-hoc basis by individuals or volunteer groups might be well placed to weather a shutdown. While they may have bills to cover, without significant outlays (particularly paid staff) they may have flexibility to suspend operations in a way that other museums might not. By contrast, private museums that are visitor attractions in their own right, or whose future is contingent on the success of a business, are threatened by the global economic recession which appears likely to accompany the pandemic. A significant downturn in tourism and domestic spending may significantly reduce the means of owners and their ability to open and maintain their museums.

Independent museums: not for profit

Not for profit museums comprise the biggest group of museums in the UK. They are constituted as charitable trusts and this formal infrastructure and eligibility for a diverse range of funding contributes to their longevity. Not for profit museums also span a range of venues, from small village museums to some of the largest museums in the country. Again, museums at the margins might be more resilient to the current circumstances. Some smaller museums, often with a focus on local history and operated by volunteer groups, might be more adaptive to enforced closure. Equally, small museums with diverse funding sources (such a project grants) may be somewhat shielded from declining visitor income.

However, museums that depend heavily on visitor revenue (including admissions and events) face uncertain times, particularly as many not for profit museums do not have significant reserves. For example, the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth generates 90% of its revenue from visitors and a prolonged shutdown could see it lose its entire annual income. In the long term this crisis might see a significant reduction in not for profit museums’ operational capacity – the tourist economy will likely take years to fully recover; there may be a decline in donations (given the effect on private finances); and grant-giving bodies are pivoting resources to an emergency footing. The Arts Council is reallocating £160m funding – expending nearly all its reserves – to support cultural organizations and cultural workers during the crisis. This support is likely to last for a significant time following the end of the crisis, and revenue for capital and programme development may be significantly curtailed as a result.

Local Authority museums

Local authority museums are owned and operated by, or on behalf of, local authorities and are largely tied to their economic health. These museums have a closure rate of 21%, and this tends to occur when the authority takes drastic measures to cut expenditure, resulting in the rationalization of museum services. 59 local authority museums closed between 2009 and 2017, following the global financial crisis. Accompanying budgets cuts saw museum roles hollowing out and expertise lost, further undermining institutional resilience. With core operational funding, the threat to local authority museums is not so much in the immediate term but the years ahead as the UK likely faces a more severe recession than 2008. While the government stimulus package (announced 11 March 2020) provides a £500m ‘hardship’ fund for local authorities, the long-term effects of the crisis will likely place a heavy financial burden on local government resources, which will increase the likelihood of further local authority museum closures or asset transfers.

National museums

National museums receive core funding from central government. They have a closure rate of 9.5%, although this is inflated as it includes branch museum closures (e.g. the British Theatre Museum, a branch of the V&A, closed in 2007). Historically, the resilience of national museums is because government grant-in-aid supplied the majority of their operating costs. However, over the past 30 years national museums have been geared towards privatization, significantly increasing self-generated revenue as a proportion of their annual income. This now presents serious implications for national museums. For example, 61% the V&A’s annual income is self-generated and 39% grant-in-aid. The museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, has estimated the museum will lose £1,000,000 per month during closure, while the Museum’s annual report notes its reserves can cover operational costs for between 3 to 6 months. While it is unlikely that national museums will see permanent closures, it is likely that the government will have to bolster their funds and this may be at the cost of jobs, rationalization of core functions, or have implications for capital expansion and exhibition programmes.


The outlook for the museum sector is uncertain because the trajectory of the virus and its impacts are unclear. In China, South Korea and Japan, museums that were instructed to close in January have now begun to reopen to the public, albeit with restrictions. However, these countries mobilized quickly to track the disease and lock down cities in a way that seems unrealizable in the West. The UK government indicates that a shutdown of normal life could last from 3 to 12 months.

The government response and its support for the museum sector has been opaque. It is anticipated that some museums might benefit from small business loans and Business Relief Rates, while calls have been made to utilize the £120m ringfenced for the 2021 post-Brexit ‘Festival of Britain’. However, it is unclear how emergency funds would be deployed and which parts of the sector would most benefit from them. Beyond a blanket bailout, detailed work needs to be done to understand vulnerable museum communities that should be eligible for support.

The magnitude of this crisis will undoubtedly cause museums to close permanently. Already some museums, such as Creswell Crags, have launched their own fundraising appeals to help secure their finances. In the short term, it appears that the most vulnerable will be established independent museums (private and non-profit) that are significantly dependent on visitor revenue and business revenues. By contrast, the repercussions of a massive economic bailout, will likely lead to difficult decisions for local authority support for museums in the coming years.

The Mapping Museums research team will continue to update the database to track museum closure and establish how the museum sector changes as a result of this crisis. The database can be used to find local museums (and prospectively offer support) and can be edited – please inform us if you know of museums that close permanently. Documenting the sector will create valuable data to support decisions taken by government and sector bodies in the challenging times ahead.  

Jamie Larkin