Museum Closure in the UK

Trains, planes, and automobiles – how much do we know about where collections go?

The Mapping Museums Lab have been collecting data on over 450 closed museums, including what happens to their collections and buildings. As we gather information about collections, we’re learning that the data available varies widely from one museum to another. In some cases we’ve obtained a list of where every exhibit went, with the type of destination (such as a museum or private storage facility), and sometimes the state of repair of individual objects. In other cases, we have gathered little more than that the collection was sold, often at auction, and dispersed into private hands.

We’re in the relatively early stages of a two-year project, but some patterns are already starting to emerge. For instance, legal processes can have the effect of producing better public documentation for collection dispersals. Liquidators managing company insolvencies produce annual reports, which detail the disposal of assets, and a set of those reports were produced when the parent charity of the Yorkshire Waterways Museum went into liquidation. A more controversial example is the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, where accusations of impropriety led to numerous news reports that documented the complex trajectories of some of the exhibits. Although Bristol Museums now look after the bulk of the collection, the whereabouts of some items formerly held by the BECM are still unknown.

The type of object displayed can make a big difference to the amount of information available. Museums of aviation and railways, which in the cases we’re looking at often display a fairly small number of large objects, are particularly well documented. One example is the Electric Railway Museum, which was a collection of locomotives, electric multiple units and related items, sited near Coventry. The museum’s founder kindly supplied us with a detailed list of the whereabouts of the collection, and the ownership status of each object.

Multiple electric locomotives and rolling stock. A shed is visible on the right hand side.
The Electric Railway Museum in 2012. Photo: Fairfaithfull on Wikimedia Commons

The collections of closed aviation museums can also be fairly straightforward to track. Each plane, in addition to having a manufacturer and model, also has a unique identification number that enables its whereabouts to be found. I have never needed to visit the Demobbed website before starting this project, but that database of former military aircraft has proved invaluable in tracking down some of the planes that were held by now-closed museums. Demobbed features extensive lists of aircraft locations maintained by the Wolverhampton Aviation Group, who are evidently a dedicated community of enthusiasts. Each plane’s history is detailed, including whether parts of it, such as nose cones, were removed and dispersed.

Museums featuring ships and boats have also been relatively easy to track. The small collection of five ships and submarines once held by the Warship Preservation Trust in Birkenhead has been exhaustively documented. This is partly due to a museum and a heritage organisation acquiring two of the vessels. But thanks to enthusiasts keeping an eye on the others, documenting them online and sometimes campaigning for their preservation, we know that a submarine and the frigate HMS Plymouth were scrapped, while the last known destination of the minesweeper HMS Bronington was a dock in Birkenhead, where it had partially sunk at its moorings.

But for another maritime collection there is more uncertainty about destinations. The large collection of boats at the Eyemouth Maritime Centre was sold at auction in 2017. The sale attracted a fair amount of attention from boating enthusiasts, which means that we have been able to track the destinations of quite a few of the boats. However, around 100 boats were reportedly purchased by a collector and cut up to enable transportation to China. This shipment was apparently intended for a new maritime museum but we don’t know whether it ever opened, leaving the whereabouts of a substantial part of the Eyemouth collection unknown.

Warships and a U-boat moored in Birkenhead Dock.
Warships Preservation Trust. Photo: Chowells on WikiMedia Commons.

Although planes, trains, and ships have been easy enough to track down in many cases, car and motorcycle museums are another matter. So far, we’ve found that many of these collections go to auction and are subsequently dispersed to private buyers. Occasionally it’s possible to discover that some items have gone to museums, but not always which ones. The auctioneers of the London Motorcycle Museum told us that three of the bikes had been purchased by museums, but our enquiries have not revealed precisely where they went. The case of the Cars of the Stars museum, mentioned in a previous blog, where the collection went to just one buyer who also runs a museum, appears to be quite unusual. As the destinations of auctioned items are rarely reported, that type of museum dispersal is often the end of the trail for us.

A tug painted in bright blue and yellow moored at the dockside.
Wheldale at Yorkshire Waterways Museum in 2005. Photo by George Robinson on WikiMedia Commons.

As our research continues, it’s becoming apparent that although some collections are very well documented, sometimes down to the level of individual items, in many cases we are simply recording groups of items as moving from a closed museum. And it’s unfortunately quite likely that we will never know what has happened to many others, with the destinations of items and even whole collections left unrecorded. Those differences in what we can find out have implications for how we analyse our data. We don’t want to over-represent some collections in our analyses simply because we have more details about them, or under-represent others that are less well documented. As a team we’re continuing to discuss how best to grapple with that problem.

Mark Liebenrood

Museum Closure in the UK

Museum closures and deprivation

Are museums more likely to close in areas of higher deprivation? It seems an obvious question. The more deprived an area is, the less capacity the council has for raising revenue from business rates and council tax, and the more likely it is to have to cut non-statutory services, such as museums. Meanwhile independent museums in deprived areas might struggle due to the lack of disposable income. Except that turns out not to be the case.

In the last blog we considered closure according to region, which provided us with an overview of museum geography in the UK. In this blog we take a more granular approach and draw on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. This is the official measure of relative deprivation in the UK and is assessed on a combination of household income, employment, education, health, crime, barriers to housing and services, and living environment. Using the index allows us to look at deprivation in relation to small areas with around 1,500 residents apiece, which then enables a more nuanced understanding of where museums are located and the types of places where closure occurs. Deprivation is calculated differently in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, making comparisons difficult, so in this blog we focus only on England.

Table 1 shows the distribution of open museums across England as of the beginning of 2024. They have been classified according to governance and the deprivation of the ward in which they are located. As you can see, all kinds of museums can be found in almost all areas – irrespective of deprivation. There are no national museums in the least deprived areas and no university museums in the most deprived, although both these types of museums have relatively small numbers. Most notably, private, and independent (not for profit) museums cluster in the middle ground, while local authority museums tend towards the most deprived.

Table 2 shows change in the number of museums since 2000 and gives the percentage change in each category. As we outlined in our previous blog the number of independent (not for profit) and private museums rose since 2000. Here we can see that the expansion in numbers of not-for-profit and private museum goes across the spectrum of deprivation with large growth in the middle.

The number of Local Authority museums has decreased since 2000 but there has been less decrease in the middle ground. There has been a greater decrease in the number of Local Authority museums at the edges of the spectrum, that is in areas of most and least deprivation.

There are two important caveats to this data. Firstly, the Index of Multiple Deprivation does not equate to average affluence or poverty. Rather it looks at most and least deprived, which is slightly different. So for instance, one area may contain pockets of extreme wealth and considerable deprivation, whereas another may be less affluent but also have little deprivation in the sense that residents are all in employment, there are low rates of crime, and so on. According to the Index the first area is more deprived – there is some deprivation amid the wealth – while the second is less deprived.

The second caveat is that a museum’s location is not synonymous to the visitor catchment area. These small areas represent the immediate geographic context in which a museum is sited and visitors may come from much further afield. The degree to which they do so depends in part on the type of museum in question; whether it is a national, regional, or small local museum. Going forward we will be thinking further about calculating the distribution of museums and change according to the visitor catchment area.

Yet despite the caveats, the data shows that change in the sector does not neatly align with levels of deprivation. We cannot link museum closure to deprivation or indeed growth in numbers to a lack of deprivation.

Fiona Candlin
George Wright
Andrea Ballatore

Photo: Katy Pettit

Museum Closure in the UK

The afterlife of museum collections

What happens to collections after museums close? Over the next two years the Mapping Museums Lab will be looking at that question in more detail, but even in these early stages of the project we’re beginning to get a sense of some of the outcomes and of the objects’ destinations.

We’re concentrating on museum closure in the UK since 2000 and so far, museums’ governance seems to make a significant difference to where objects end up. The collections from local authority museums are generally returned to or absorbed into the county or city service, and often re-appear in other spaces and exhibitions. For example, the Nottingham City Museums service operated multiple sites including The Museum of Costume and Textiles [1976-2003]. After it closed to the public, the collections were stored onsite, then re-located to the historic house Newstead Abbey, with some items later going on exhibition in various other museums within the service.  Among other things, two seventeenth-century tapestry maps of Nottinghamshire, which had been on permanent display at Museum of Costume and Textiles, and were stored following its closure in 2003, were prominently displayed in the “Rebellion” themed gallery at Nottingham Castle when it reopened in 2021.

A tapestry map of part of Nottinghamshire. It is dated 1632 at the top right and a cartouche contains the words 'At Rampton made wee were by Mistress Mary Eyre'
A 17th century tapestry map of Nottinghamshire

We found similar trends in other local authority museums that closed. Artefacts from St Peter’s Hungate Church Museum [1933-2000] reappeared in the decorative arts galleries at Norwich Castle and in the period rooms at Norwich Museum at Brideswell, museums operated by the same local authority. The Manor House Museum [1993-2006] in Bury St Edmunds had a collection of fine art, costume, and perhaps most notably clocks, which went to their sister institution Moyse Hall.  The costume and art are incorporated into social history displays as and when they are required, while the clocks have a permanent space.

In a few instances the local authority mothballs a museum leaving everything in situ. In some cases, this allows for some continuing use. The Museum of Lancashire [1972-2016] in Preston has been closed for several years, but the galleries with recreated spaces – a Victorian classroom and street scene, and a World War 1 trench – and all the associated objects remain untouched and are regularly used for education sessions. When I first spoke to staff in November 2023, hundreds of schoolchildren had been through the otherwise closed museum in the previous weeks. Moray Council took a more drastic approach when it shut the Falconer Museum in Forres [1871-2019]. The collections in the store and displays in the public galleries remain as they were left when the staff left on their last day, and the only people who have access are the conservation officers responsible for checking the building and collections.

So far, we have not found any independent museums that mothball their collections. In some cases, the trust or organisation that ran the independent museum still exists and they retain ownership of the artefacts, loaning them out to other organisations. For instance, the instruments from the Asian Music Circuit Museum [1998-2014] are on long-term loan to the Music department at York University, although it is not clear whether they will ever be returned. In other cases, the collections are transferred in their entirety to another museum. When the independent Bexhill Costume Museum [1972-2004] faced closure early in the millennium, the director negotiated a complete transfer of collections to Bexhill Museum, which was accordingly redeveloped with support from the local authority, re-opening in 2007. Likewise, the contents of Earby Lead Mining Museum [1971-2015] went wholesale to the nearby Dales Countryside Museum, which was local authority run.

A view of the exterior of Earby Lead Mining Museum. A large oxide red metal wheel dominates the foreground and a two storey stone building stands behind.
Earby Lead Mining Museum (photo: Gordon Hatton)

The collections from the private museums that we have so far researched are frequently sold, often at auction. Occasionally we know who bought the objects. The Cars of the Stars Museum in Keswick, which included vehicles featured in James Bond films, was purchased in its entirety by Michael Dezer who relocated the collection to his museum in Miami, Florida. When the company museum at the entrance to the Minton factory closed [1950?-2002], the Potteries Museum in Hanley bought a 4ft tall ceramic peacock that had stood at the entrance. More usually, these objects disappear into the anonymity of the private sphere.

A ceramic peacock made by the Minton firm. The peacock looks up to the left and stands on a tall rock with its tail feathers draped down the right hand side, reaching the ground. Ivy and other plants decorate the exposed rock surface
The Minton Peacock. Image courtesy of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

Researching closure is a slow and painstaking task and it will be several months more before we begin to have a more rounded picture of what happens to museum collections. It may be that our observations will be revised in the process. They will certainly be developed and refined. Over the next few months, we will be exploring numerous topics related to museum closure: which objects get scrapped, the emotional aspects of closure, and the possible corelations between social deprivation and dispersed collections. Do subscribe to our blogs on this new website for updates on our progress.

Fiona Candlin

Update: this blog was updated on 12 March 2024 to correct the status of Bexhill Museum.

Lab News

Funding success for the Mapping Museums team

We are pleased to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has awarded £1million to the Mapping Museums research team for their project ‘Museum Closure in the UK 2000-2025’.  

The new research will use trans-disciplinary methods to analyse closure and collections dispersal within the UK museums sector. Its aim is to examine the geographic distribution of closure, to better understand types of closure (e.g., whether museums are mothballed or disbanded), and to document the flows of objects and knowledge from museums in the aftermath of closure. We will investigate the afterlife of collections, find out if museum exhibits are scrapped, sold, stored, or re-used, and examine ‘outreach’ and temporary museums. A Knowledge Base will be designed to model and store the collected data, and visualisations and analyses of the data will be developed. Above all, we aim at critically reassessing notions of permanence and loss within the museums sector.  

‘Museum Closure’ is based at Birkbeck, University of London and at King’s College London, and will run for two years, beginning in October 2023. It is led by Fiona Candlin, Professor of Museology, who will be working with co-investigators, Dr Andrea Ballatore (King’s College London), a specialist in cultural data science, Alexandra Poulovassilis, Emeritus Professor in Computer Science, and Peter Wood, Professor in Computer Science. The post-doctoral researcher is Dr Mark Liebenrood (museum history) and we will be recruiting a second post-doctoral researcher in data science.

(Image modified from original, by elston on Flickr)


Letter on Museum Closure

Our researcher Mark Liebenrood recently wrote a letter to The Guardian about museum closures. His letter is below, or you can read it on the Guardian’s site with other letters about the value and plight of museums in Ukraine and Sudan.

Charlotte Higgins is right to highlight the straitened circumstances of the UK’s museums (War has shown Ukrainians – and the rest of us – why museums are so important for telling our stories, 27 May), but there are deeper issues in the sector than a lack of cash to modify working practices and maintain displays.

The Mapping Museums project at Birkbeck, University of London has shown that more than 800 museums have closed in the UK since 1960. There can be many reasons for museums to close: founders retire, land and buildings are lost when leases cannot be renewed and, yes, reductions in income. But lack of funding is often a result of political choices. It is probably not by chance that the rate of closures has accelerated since 2010 – a period that coincides with austerity policies, with all their ramifications.

New museums have continued to open regularly, but 2010 was the first time that closures outstripped openings, and there are now signs that the sector may have begun to shrink. As Higgins says, we need museums. Closures often mean loss of access to collections, and in turn to public history. That too is a crisis that needs attention.

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

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

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

Museum closure during the pandemic

When museums first closed to visitors in March 2020 as a result of the national lockdown, their prospects seemed poor. Andrew Lovett, Chair of the Association of Independent Museums thought that the impact of the pandemic made it inevitable some museums would ‘just run out of cash and go to the wall’, with collections potentially being lost. Likewise, the director of Arts Council England was concerned that major arts organisations would be put in real jeopardy by the crisis and that some might not survive, and other commentators similarly forecasted mass closures. In fact, only nine museums in the UK have permanently closed over the past year, significantly less than in previous years (there were 26 permanent closures in 2017 and 16 in 2018), and only one of those closures can be linked to the COVID crisis. In this blog we briefly review the reasons why they closed their doors.

A circular dark green sign for the Pembrokeshire Candle Centre hangs in front a building with mauve flowers below.
Pembrokeshire Candle Centre

In two cases the museum closed when the owner retired. In September 2020, Inger John, who had run the Pembrokeshire Candle Makers Centre in Wales, announced that she had used up her remaining wax, was stopping production, and that she would be closing the associated museum. The museum exhibits were offered for sale. A military museum at Fort Paull, a Napoleonic fortress in Yorkshire, announced that it was closing in early 2020. At the age of eighty, the owner and director had decided to sell the site and retire. He was keen to find a buyer who would preserve the attraction, and a group of enthusiasts formed a company with a view to bidding for the property, but they were unable to raise sufficient funds. The contents of the museum were sold at auction in early 2021.

Entrance gates at Fort Paull. Brick walls stand either side of black gates hung with heraldic shields. Two lifesize soldiers stand on the walls above, either side of a large Fort Paull sign.
Fort Paull

Four museums closed due to the loss of their premises, although why this happened varies. The Commando Museum opened in 1993 at the Spean Bridge Hotel near Fort William. The property later changed hands and with redevelopment pending, the volunteers started looking for alternative accommodation. When that proved unsuccessful, they put the exhibits into storage until such time that a new venue could be found. Staff at the Maritime Museum in Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex found themselves in a similar situation. The museum was housed in a historic lifeboat house owned by Tendring council who in 2015 announced a rent hike, to be introduced in steps. The volunteers were keen to relocate since the building was cold, damp and situated at the end of a cul-de-sac, so footfall was low, but two attempts at relocation fell through, and the museum had to close. The collections are in storage.

Inside the Commando Museum. In the foreground is a mannequin dressed in commando uniform in a glass case.
The Commando Museum
Walton-on-the-Naze Maritime Museum. A building with a blue-painted lower storey and a brick and tile upper storey with a pitched roof and a white-painted oriel window. A red and white sign reads The Old Lifeboat House..
Walton-on-the-Naze Maritime Museum

The Metropolitan Police Service Museum Heritage Centre also found itself out of a home, in this case, when the building changed use. Run by the police, and part of that service, the building was moved to secure level operational status, making it off limits to the general public, and the Heritage Centre was duly closed. It is being relocated to a new space in Woolwich, which will open later this year, but it does not have a dedicated exhibition area. Although the Heritage Centre will continue to function as an archive and repository, and although it has objects on loan to other museums, it is no longer a museum in its own right. And the Bruntingthorpe Aircraft Museum in Leicestershire closed in the summer of 2020 when the site was sold. According to an enthusiasts’ forum the land was owned by the Walton family and while David Walton had supported the museum over many years, other family members had opted to sell the land for redevelopment as a massive carpark. The owners of the aircraft were given until the October of that year to vacate the site.

Elsewhere, finances were an issue. The Victoria Cross Trust opened the Ashworth Barracks Museum in Doncaster in 2014 to house their collection of military artefacts. In 2020 they announced its closure, commenting that running a museum had never been among its core objectives, rather they had been established to maintain war graves. No reasons for the closure were given but the lease on the premises was due to expire in June 2020 and the trust had been struggling to generate enough income to cover the museum’s overheads. Parts of their collection were loaned to Sheffield with other exhibits going into storage.

All the museums we have mentioned so far were small, unaccredited, and with the exception of the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre, run by private owners or voluntary groups. The Falconer Museum in Forres on the North East coast of Scotland was an accredited local authority museum, and indeed the only museum in the Moray area that was funded by the local council, two others having been closed in the previous six years. Faced with budget cuts of around £10m, in 2019, the council decided to close the museum service with estimated savings of around £87,000 per year. The museum was established in 1871 and exhibited artefacts belonging to the Victorian geologist and botanist Hugh Falconer and his brother Alexander, as well as social history, archaeology and world heritage collections of national and international significance. Attempts to find a third party to run the museum were unsuccessful, not least because the building is in need of repair, and the museum remains mothballed.

General view of the Falconer Museum. Objects can be seen in glass cases on a gallery and the ground floor. Above a staircase is a mounted stags head.
The Falconer Museum

The closure of these museums was a subject of regret for the volunteers who had run them, and the groups and local residents who campaigned for their survival. The exception is the Jack the Ripper Museum in London, where news of its imminent closure was met with some delight. The museum was controversial because its founder originally applied for and was granted planning permission for a Museum that focused on women’s history, whereas it actually concentrated on the murder of five East End women. In September the feminist historian Dr Louse Raw discovered that the company had declared insolvency. In their blog ‘F Yeah History’, Natasha Tidd and Helen Antrobus pointed out that the museum suffered from a lack of local trust, that it had responded to controversy by closing down communication, which would have an impact on its public profile, and that with poorly executed exhibits there was little enticement for visitors to return, factors that may have had an impact on its closure. Given that it was a commercial venue reliant on ticket sales, and (so far as we know) did not receive any emergency funding, it is also likely that its insolvency was linked to the pandemic and the consequent lack of income. The building failed to sell at auction in May 2021.

It is likely that the impact of COVID may have been the final nail in the coffin of the Jack the Ripper Museum. Otherwise, what is striking about these closures is that they have little relation to the pandemic and instead are due to other more usual factors such as retirement, the loss of a site, the difficulty of finding new accommodation or changed accommodation, lack of income, and government cuts to local authority budgets, often in combination. As we will discuss in our next blog the availability of emergency funding has made it possible for most museums to survive the past year, although often with considerable human cost since there have been significant cuts to the workforce. The question is whether and how the situation will change over the next year or more. The research team will be monitoring the UK museum sector until 2022 and so do subscribe to our blogs if you would like to receive regular updates.

We would like to thank the Museums Development Network; Museums Galleries Scotland; and Museums and Archives Division, Wales for their help in compiling this information. All our data can be consulted on the Mapping Museums website. Please get in touch if you know of any other museums in the UK that have permanently closed over the past year.

Fiona Candlin May 2021

(Header image by tma)