UK museums fight for survival as virus ravages sector

London (AFP) –


Faced with reduced opening hours, far fewer visitors and plummeting income, London's picturesque Charles Dickens Museum is typical of how British cultural institutions are being financially strangled by the pandemic.

The Victorian house in the heart of the British capital where the famous storyteller wrote "Oliver Twist", "The Pickwick Papers" and "Nicholas Nickleby" in the 19th century was eerily empty earlier this week, days after the government ramped up virus restrictions in the city.

That is perhaps not surprising. The residence, which houses many of Dickens' personal effects, has only been open three days a week since late July following Britain's months-long nationwide lockdown.

Elsewhere, other museums, theatres and concert halls -- from the most intimate to flagship names -- are struggling to survive and forced to lay off hundreds of employees.

Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum, said the shutdown was "a real shock to us" as the overwhelming majority of its income, which comes from admission fees, souvenirs and special events, disappeared overnight.

"We're an entirely independently funded museum... so without much warning we had to suddenly figure out how we were going to survive," she told AFP.

Today only around a fifth of the typical 60,000 annual visitors are still coming through the doors, in large part because half the normal footfall is from overseas -- and they are staying away.

With Britain imposing two-week quarantine requirements on many foreign visitors, there is little prospect of an imminent resurgence.

The country has suffered Europe's worst death toll from the virus, with nearly 44,000 deaths.

As different households are again banned from mixing indoors, domestic visitors are unlikely to make up the shortfall.

"One of the most frustrating aspects for everyone is that we have no idea of when it's going to end," said Sughrue.

"Each time there's a new government announcement, or a new restriction comes in... we see a drop in our numbers and it gradually increases again. It's a bit of a roller-coaster."

- 'Bounce back' -

The Charles Dickens Museum had hoped for a very different 2020, marking the 150th anniversary of the author's death.

But it is not alone in having best laid plans wrecked by the coronavirus.

Some cultural institutions have not reopened since the nationwide lockdown was eased over the summer, daunted by needing to comply with new sanitary rules and restrictions on visitor numbers.

Under pressure, the government released an aid package of £1.57 billion ($2.03 billion, 1.72 billion euros) but many in the cultural sector have branded it insufficient.

The Charles Dickens Museum, which usually has an annual turnover of £850,000, has received around £500,000 from a range of sources which will keep it going until the spring.

"I'm absolutely confident that when the pandemic is over and international tourism returns to London we will absolutely bounce back," said Sughrue.

"But no one knows exactly when that point is going to be reached, and that's my concern now."

- Artwork auction? -

Dire times are also forcing some cultural institutions into seemingly desperate moves.

Faced with what it calls "the biggest crisis" in its history, the London Royal Opera House is auctioning off a portrait of its former director by legendary British painter David Hockney this week.

Thursday's sale, which follows similar moves by several museums in the United States, is expected to generate up to £18 million, according to The Observer newspaper.

Long seen as a taboo thing to do, some are now urging other institutions such as the Royal Academy of Arts to follow suit and sell artworks to avoid layoffs.

Some staff there have called for a sculpture by Renaissance great Michelangelo to be sold to save 150 jobs, or about half of the workforce.

"Selling an artwork or a piece from the museum collection is the last thing that any institution wants to do," said Sughrue.

"We certainly wouldn't consider doing that here... unless every other possible source of income and support has been truly exhausted."

In a July parliamentary report, museum associations warned that selling collectors' items could result in the potentially irretrievable loss of public access to the nation's heritage.

In the search for silver linings though, Sughrue said the pandemic had challenged the museum to "think differently".

"We've had an ambitious long-term plan to put more of our collection material online and freely accessible all over the world, and we've accelerated that work," she noted.