Categories
Research Process

Types of museum closure

The rapid spread of coronavirus has forced museums in the UK to close. Although those closures are temporary, some museums face financial difficulties as a result, and have raised the prospect that they might close permanently. But not all museums close in the same way. My own research into museum closure in the UK over the last sixty years shows that there are different types of museum closure, and some have more impact: they are more final than others. In this blog I outline two types of closure.

Hard closures have the greatest impact. They could be defined as one in which the museum has closed for good, with no plan for reinstatement, and the collections have been disposed of. An example of this kind of closure is the Christchurch Tricycle Museum in Dorset, a small private museum which closed in 1995, apparently due to financial problems, and whose collection was sold at auction a year later.

The sale of collections at the end of a museum’s life is perhaps the hardest form of closure, but there is arguably less impact in the case of closures where collections are transferred to other museums. The Barnes Museum of Cinematography in St Ives, Cornwall closed in 1986, but parts of the collection are still available to the public in two other museums: Hove Museum, run by the local authority, and the Italian National Museum of Cinema in Turin. This partial transfer of collections to other museums can be seen as less severe than a sale of the whole collection, but dispersal to museums in two different countries makes access more difficult, and it is not clear what happened to the remainder of the objects in the Barnes collection.

Private museums such as Christchurch and the Barnes are not subject to the same ethical and legal constraints on disposal as accredited museums and those run by local authorities or trusts. When such museums close, they are obliged to dispose of their collections in a way that maintains public access. When the local authority museum in Burton on Trent, Staffordshire closed in 1981 the collections were dispersed, although attempts were made to keep the items as local to Burton as possible. Plans were made for most of the objects and archives to be sent to six different institutions, many of them in or close to Burton, and local schools. One of the receivers was the privately-owned Bass Museum in Burton, predominantly a museum of brewing, which charged for admission (often a factor in reducing access). Another was Shugborough Hall, a historic house leased by Staffordshire County Council from the National Trust, which was twenty miles away from Burton. Although the dispersals were relatively local, they would still have made it more difficult to view the collections, formerly gathered together in one place.

By contrast, soft closures have much less impact. They include the replacement of one museum by another, which can happen when museums amalgamate or expand. The Timothy Hackworth Museum, for instance, a railway museum in Shildon, County Durham, was absorbed into a new larger museum, Locomotion, that has the same site and subject matter. So although the original museum closed, all of its collections remain available and it could be said to have closed in name only. Something similar could be said of the Museum of Liverpool Life, which was so popular that it could not accommodate all those who wished to visit. It was closed in 2006 to allow building works to begin for its replacement, the much larger Museum of Liverpool, which opened five years later. In these cases the closures were planned, and intended to be temporary.

The closure of museum branches, although these are relatively rare, can be also be considered as having a softer impact. The Theatre Museum in London was a branch of the V&A in Covent Garden, a few miles from the main museum in South Kensington. When the Theatre Museum closed in 2007 the collections were reintegrated into the V&A. The Museum of Mankind, which was a branch of the British Museum until it closed in 1997, is a comparable example. The collections remain available at the British Museum, although by one account the return was not without problems, including an initial lack of display space and fundamental differences in curatorial approach, which emerged in the process of redisplaying the African ethnographic collections. Although these museums have closed, they were branches of larger museums that remain open in the same cities and retain the collections that were on show. Far less has been lost than when a museum closes and sells its collections or disperses them widely.

From these examples, it is possible to identify some dimensions of museum closure. One is time: closures may be final or they may be part of a longer-term plan for replacement with larger facilities, as in the cases of the Museum of Liverpool Life or the Timothy Hackworth museum. The dimension of time also applies to the dispersal of collections, which can happen in stages as they pass through different institutions. Most of the collection at the Hunday museum of farming in Northumberland was sold first of all to the museum at Stapehill Abbey in Dorset. What began as a dispersal to a single site then became more dispersed when, seven years later, the Abbey’s collection was sold at private auction.

The way in which the Hunday museum’s collections were gradually dispersed draws attention to another dimension of closure: the destinations of the closed museum’s collections. They may be dispersed quite locally, as with Burton Museum, or much more widely, as were the Barnes Museum collections. This is not only a question of geographical distribution, but also of the type of destination. At one extreme, the collections of a museum could end up in the hands of many different private owners, which may prevent future public access. One example is the sale of Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, a collection of whimsical taxidermy formerly in Bramber, Sussex, which was sold in 1984 and moved to Jamaica Inn, Cornwall, before being sold at auction in 2003 and dispersed. But objects from a closed museum may also remain entirely within other museums – in the simplest cases just one museum, as when the Museum of Mankind was closed.

For the majority of the public, the main impact of harder closures is to reduce access to museums for those used to being able to visit them. As the Museums Association stated in their 2017 report ‘Museums Facing Closure’: “Closing a museum denies the public access to their heritage and significantly undermines the human right to culture”. Although the impact can vary from one museum closure to another, it usually reduces access to collections. When collections are sold and dispersed to private collectors, access may be denied to the public completely. But not all museums close in this way, and softer closures usually result in collections remaining available, albeit sometimes widely dispersed.

Mark Liebenrood

Original photo by Masaaki Komori


Categories
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.

Conclusions

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

Categories
Research Process

Mapping Museums: Preliminary results on UK museum closure, 1960-2017

Jamie Larkin

The museums sector generally concentrates on current practice and developments; it does not keep longitudinal data that would enable academics and museum professionals to trace patterns over time.

The result is that commentary on closure is focussed on the very recent past and lacks a broader perspective that could add insight to contemporary analyses of this phenomenon. As part of the Mapping Museums project we have built a dataset charting the development of UK museums since 1960, and we have used this to draw the first substantive picture of museum closures over time.

At the outset there are two important points to address relating to museum closure that we’ve encountered while building the dataset.

The first concerns data collection. Given the historical focus of the project, a great difficulty has been finding information regarding precise years of closure. Recent closures and closure of well-established museums are fairly well documented. The real difficulty has been tracking down information for smaller, grassroots, regional museums – particularly those that closed 15, 20, or 25 years ago.

We have conducted extensive searches via websites, historical guidebooks, and museum directories. When these were exhausted we sent emails or made telephone calls to individuals or groups, including regional museums services, local history societies or town clerks. We sent hundreds of communications in this way. Sometimes our contacts provided definitive information on when a museum closed; sometimes they could not.

For opening and closure years we have been able to generate accurate information for about 90% of museums. This has been an unprecedented undertaking and has drawn together information from a disparate range of sources. For the remaining 10% we’ve employed year ranges or made informed estimates, which we have mitigated with appropriate statistical methods in our analysis¹.

The second point is that, almost counter-intuitively, closure is difficult to define.

For example, if a museum ceases regular public opening hours but remains accessible in some form, should we continue to consider it open? This happened at Leith Hall House in 2009, which is now open for guided tours only. As the property is still accessible and continues to be advertised by its owner, the National Trust for Scotland, we consider it open, but this is, of course, debatable.

Furthermore, is closure is connected to premises? When a museum merges into another site, should we consider it closed or just having changed location? For example, in 2015 the Clockmakers Museum moved from its own premises into the Science Museum. Should we mark the museum closed and the collection a constituent part of the Science Museum? Its website indicates that the Clockmakers Museum retains a distinct identity. As such, we have kept it open.

The most difficult conceptual aspect to closure is that some museums don’t close per se, they gradually cease to exist. This is often the case with farm museums, where exhibitions of rural bygones are supplanted by other visitor offers (e.g. farm shop, petting zoo) so that the museum display doesn’t close with a thud at a specific moment, but gradually slips away without a whimper. In such instances we have contacted owners and discussed how best to record such forms of closure.

Generally, we have looked at closure on a case by case basis and tried to balance continuity versus change. If an effort has been made to keep a museum alive in some form we have tended to respect that, although we would log instances of material change, such as if a local authority museum was taken over by a volunteer group, etc.

Analysis

Turning to the analysis, it should be noted that these are preliminary results that will be refined prior to more formal publication, so some of the numbers presented here may be subject to slight change.

In total, we have recorded nearly 4,000 museums as being open to the public in the UK between 1960 and 2017, of which around 3,250 are currently open. This is a significant increase on the Museum Association’s estimate of 2500. Our larger number is partly due to the fact that we have a more encompassing definition of what a museum is and count unaccredited museums that may not be included in other surveys.

The figure of 3,250 open museums means that since 1960 there have been about 750 closures. This is around 20% of the total.

First let’s begin by considering the rate of closure over time.

 

Figure 1: Plot showing rate of museum closure in the UK by year, 1960-2017

This is a simple smoothed line plot showing the number of UK museum closures per year since 1960. There are two types of plot used in this analysis: smoothed line plot (which shows average figures and is best for perceiving general trends) and spiky line plot (which shows precise figures for specific years).

As you can see in Figure 1, peaks in closure begin around the mid 1980s (with an average 13 closures per year) with another in the late 1990s (with an average 20 closures). Following the economic crisis in 2008, the closure rate accelerates, peaking in the last few years with closures averaging 30 per year.

 

Figure 2: Plot showing rate of museum closure in the UK per year, 1960-2017

Figure 2 shows closure information for specific years; the highest annual number of closures we recorded was 39 museums in 2015.

A particularly significant finding from this data is that it demonstrates that around 200 museums have closed since 2010. This provided an interesting contrast to the Museum Association’s figure of ‘at least 64′ closures over the same period, cited in their Museums in the UK 2017 report.

It is clear from these graphs that closures are rising more steeply in the current period than at any point since 1960.

However, if we look at these figures in the wider context of museum opening we get a different perspective.

 

Figure 3: Plot showing museum openings and closings in the UK, 1960-2017

This smoothed line plot shows the annual number of UK museum openings (in green) and closures (in red) since 1960. It demonstrates that while closure rates are increasing, they are doing so in the context of a sector that until very recently has been consistently expanding.

This data substantiates the rapid expansion of museums during the 1970s and 1980s, which is often termed the ‘heritage boom’. Since the early 1990s the rate of openings has declined but they have still outpaced closures in every year except four.

 

Figure 4: Plot showing museum openings and closings in the UK, 1960-2017

This spiky line plot shows more clearly that for every year between 1960 and 2014 (with an exception in 2010), more museums opened than closed, meaning the sector expanded. The result is that the sector peaked in terms of total number of museums in 2014.

However, in 2015, 2016, and 2017 this trend was reversed by marginal net losses. What is particularly striking is that 2017 saw the lowest number of museum openings in the UK since 1960. This figure is 16 museums per year.

Generally speaking, this would appear to indicate a picture of robust growth over the longer term. From approximately 900 museums in 1960, the sector has seen a 260% net gain to the current situation in which numbers have begun to plateau.

However, drilling down into the data reveals some divergent trends.

For example, while the sector has grown substantially in this period, its composition has markedly changed.

Figure 5 shows number of closures by decade based on museum governance. (Note: Here we are using a simplified governance measure: ‘independent’ includes private museums or those run by trusts or foundations, while ‘state’ comprises national and local authority museums).

If we consider closure by governance, we can see that greater numbers of independent museums are closing than state run museums.

 

Figure 5: Museum closure by governance per decade in the UK, 1960s-2010s.

This may be expected, particularly given that smaller, private museums are often financially shaky ventures. For example, between 2010 and 2017, our data shows that over 150 independent museums closed compared to roughly 60 state run museums.

However, a more significant observation is that in proportionate terms, the closure of state run museums is higher than that of independents.

 

Figure 6: Plot showing percentage proportion of museum closure by governance in the UK, 1960-2017

This plot shows museum closure as a proportion of governance type.

As we can see, proportionate closure of state run museums begins to outpace closure of independents around 1995. Since 2000, the average proportionate rate of closure of state run museums has been 1.1% per year compared to around 0.7% for independents.

If we examine the data further we can see significant spikes in 2011 (when 1.8% of state run museums closed), 2015 (with 1.5%) and 2016 (with 2.4%).

When we factor in openings over this period, we also see that fewer state run museums have opened than closed since 2000. The result of this is that the state run museums sector has seen a net decline of around 14% in this period

Around 5% of this decline is accounted for by museums lost to closure while 9% is museums transferred by local authorities into trust status (which we have termed ‘hybrid’ status). We are still calibrating this aspect of our data and this figure could be higher.

In contrast, since 2000, the independent museums sector has seen a net growth of 9%.

We can see how these trends have changed the composition of the sector over the longer term.

 

Figure 7: Cumulative open museum by governance in the UK, 1960-2017

According to our data, in 1960 there were around 900 museums, of which 40% were state run and 50% were independent. In 2017, of the 3,250 museums we recorded, roughly 22% are state run whereas 70% are independent. As a result, we can see that the State’s direct contribution regarding the provision or management of museums is shrinking while the sector is becoming dominated numerically by independents.

Conclusions

These are some of the preliminary findings from our research.

They indicate that from 1960 onwards the museum sector expanded continually until 2010, with a slight decline in that year, but then saw further growth until it peaked in 2014. This represents 54 years of museum growth.

However, around 200 museums have closed since 2010 and for the last 3 years closures have outpaced openings. Significantly, 2017 saw the lowest rate of museum opening since 1960.

It is important, however, not to conflate the overall growth of the sector with what is happening within it. It is clear that museum growth has been principally driven by the independents and that they now ensure that the overall number of museums in the sector remains relatively static.

It is also clear that the decline in the number of state run museums – through closure or change in status – has been considerable.

This raises significant questions about the type of skills, facilities, and experiences, that are being lost with the contraction of State run museums. This issue is not just one of closure but the loss of public sector institutions.

Hopefully these initial findings provide insight into the development of the sector over the longer term and help inform the conversation about the impact of the current age of austerity on the museums sector writ large.

We will be releasing further results as we continue our analysis, so please subscribe for updates or follow us on twitter: @museumsmapping

 

© Copyright: Jamie Larkin, Fiona Candlin, Andrea Ballatore, Alex Poulovassilis

¹ The results on which this analysis is based have been weighted to account for the uncertainty in the data. When more accurate data is not available, we use a date range for the opening and closing years of museums. For example, if we know a museum was opened between 1965 and 1975 but are unable to specify a particular year, the range of possible years (in this case 10) will be divided equally and the probability (0.1 in this case) will be added to the results for the years in the date range. This avoids over-representing individual museums, and provides a more realistic quantification than a simple count.