Museums in the UK Decide to Remain Open Despite the Rest of Europe’s Cultural Institutions Heading Into Lockdown

The UK is facing criticism for its handling of the public health crisis.

British Museum. Photo by Jean-Francois Cardella/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images.
British Museum. Photo by Jean-Francois Cardella/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images.

Museums in the UK are employing a “keep calm and carry on” attitude amid the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus. While museums across Europe have battened down the hatches in line with their governments’ advice, London’s big museums are staying open in accordance with the UK government’s increasingly controversial approach to delaying the spread of the infection.

The UK has seen 590 confirmed cases of the virus, and eight deaths, so far. The prime minister Boris Johnson warned that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time,” during a somber press conference yesterday, March 12. He was speaking alongside the government’s chief scientific advisor, who said as many as 10,000 people could already be infected with the virus.

Unlike the approach taken in other affected countries including Italy, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain, Denmark, and Ireland, the UK government has not issued advice to close museums. Nor has it stopped large-scale gatherings or moved to close schools or universities. France’s museums were cautiously open until Friday afternoon, when the government restricted all gatherings of more than 100 people and the ministry of culture advised the Louvre to close.

The UK government cites scientific evidence (which it has not made public) that the appropriate strategy to delaying the expected peak of the virus until the summer is to ask all those with symptoms to self-isolate for seven days. England’s chief scientific advisor has defended the decision to delay drastic actions because it would create “herd immunity” among the population. It would also reduce the strain on health services.

As vulnerable members of the population are hit hardest by the virus, how long that remains politically acceptable remains to be seen.

Late on Friday the government seemed poised to make a policy U-turn and stop large public events,

Museums Are Open

Contacted by Artnet News, the Victoria & Albert Museum said that it is staying open. “We are following the situation closely and continue to review our operations daily based on advice from UK Government and Public Health England.” Representatives from the British Museum, and the Tate took a similar line.

Talks and private views will probably be the first things to be called off. But a conversation about Andy Warhol with the artist’s biographer Blake Gopnik went ahead last night at Tate Modern. It later emerged that an employee at Tate Modern had tested positive for the virus earlier this week. The world’s most popular museum of Modern and contemporary art is remaining open after deep-cleaning the areas impacted as well as briefing anyone who was in close contact with the affected staff member, who only came into work for one day. 

The National Gallery in London remains open and went ahead with the launch of a major Titian exhibition earlier this week, reuniting six paintings, which includes ones on loan from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Both lending institutions are now closed.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player (around 1615-17).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player (around 1615-17). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Charles H. Schwartz Endowment Fund 2014.4.1 © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

The National Gallery is due to open its highly-anticipated exhibition featuring 30 works by the early female Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi early next month. But 20 of the works are due to come from Italy, including paintings from the now shuttered Uffizi Galleries, and another from the Prado. Key works are also due to be couriered from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which are now closed, as well as the Wadsworth Atheneum, which remains open but has put in place precautionary measures. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery in London confirms that it is talking to lenders but the exhibition is still due to open on April 4 at the time of writing. (The NGA and Wadsworth did not respond to requests for comment about going head with the loans.)

Cancelled Events

While the government was advising museums to remain open, and large-gatherings to go ahead, some organizations are taking matters into their own hands, including Buckingham Palace, with the Queen scaling back her public engagements. The English Premier League has stopped all soccer matches this month. The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion is postponing all of its planned mass public gatherings until May 23, including in the UK. A trickle of cancellations and postponements of smaller events indicates a shift in direction, starting with smaller organizations.

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in the South of England is following government advice and remaining open to the public as usual, but its director Simon Martin, tweeted that he was “very sad” to cancel the private view of the gallery’s Spring exhibitions in light of the coronavirus. Martin writes “real action is necessary to protect the wellbeing of our own people, guests, and fellow citizens during this time.”

Olivier Malingue was one of the first commercial galleries in London to announce it is closing until March 29, but Sprüth Magers was hot on its heels, announcing today that it has temporarily shuttered its London location along with outposts in Berlin and Los Angeles. Elsewhere, the opening of the New York-based artist Olivia Erlanger’s solo exhibition at London’s Soft Opening, slated for April 2, has also been postponed. The gallery plans to continue the run of its current exhibition as planned until March 22.

Lost Income

A statement on the UK Museums Association website notes that the spread of the virus “has already hit visitor numbers and income” both as a result of a drop in visitors from overseas and at home. Artnet News understands that institutions are in talks with the government about the possible financial impact and cash-flow problems caused by the public health emergency.

While members are already taking the right precautionary measures to protect staff, volunteers and visitors, Heal says that the bigger issue will be the longer term impact if travel restrictions are applied, and bans on public gatherings include museums. 

“Many museums operate with tight financial margins and even a few weeks loss of income could seriously undermine their business models,” Heal says. “We would appeal to government and funders to provide financial support and emergency funding for institutions that are affected by the epidemic; and also ask funders to operate flexibility in terms of delivery of currently funded projects.”

UPDATE: The National Gallery announced on Monday, March 16, that its “Artemisia” exhibition has been postponed indefinitely due to “travel restrictions.”


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