It was fascinating to hear that the British Museum is missing its visitors in more ways than one. It seems that the exhalations of the 17,000 visitors that the museum received daily prior to lock-down were essential for keeping precious exhibits at the correct humidity levels. The museum has not been closed for more than three days at a time (over Christmas) since World War II. Since the closure in March the relative humidity levels have fallen dangerously below 40%, which means that objects made from wood and bone have been drying out and are prone to cracking and fracture. Museum staff have been monitoring the situation closely and moving the most sensitive objects to their environmentally controlled strongrooms. The re-opening of the museum is eagerly awaited by all!
I was appalled to hear that the National Trust plans to ‘dial down’ its role as a cultural institution and focus on the open spaces in its portfolio instead, claiming that the Covid pandemic has merely accelerated an already difficult situation. Even though the Trust has £1.3 billion in reserves, it proposes to keep only 20 of its 500+ historic homes and castles open to the public, to put its collections into storage and to make properties available to people who are prepared to pay more for ‘specialised experiences’. Furthermore, it plans to make 1,200 redundancies, which would include dozens of its specialist curators in areas such as textiles, furniture and libraries, as well as conservation. As Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, observes, ‘the Trust’s senior management have been making a mess of their historic properties for some time, dumbing down presentation and moving away from knowledge and expertise’, adding that it was reckless to abandon expertise built up over generations as ‘once gone, it will be impossible to retrieve’. The Trust has been accused in the past of ‘Disneyfying’ its properties and this latest news will do nothing to dispel alarm. The running of the properties should be handed to an organisation willing to run them according to the founding principles of the Trust. In the meantime I, and probably many others, will not be renewing my membership.
It’s becoming ever clearer that the culture and heritage sectors will pay a high price as a result of the pandemic. As more than 300 redundancies are announced in Tate’s commercial arm, Tate Enterprises, about 400 at London’s Southbank Centre and also at museum trusts in York and Birmingham, together with the National Trust, it seems that the government’s Culture Recovery Fund is clearly too little, too late. Tate’s director, Maria Balshaw, has actually stated that the bailout funding will not stem job losses because it will have to be used to offset substantial losses elsewhere in the galleries. Little wonder that trade unions are threatening strike action.
Museums Sheffield, which manages the Graves Art Gallery, Millennium Galleries and Weston Park Museum, is to merge with Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust (SIMT), which runs Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Kelham Island Museum and Shepherd Wheel. The new charitable trust will reunite collections that were previously managed by Sheffield City Council. The merger, which will come into effect in April 2021, has been in the pipeline for three years and is not, reportedly, a reaction to Covid-19. Instead, the primary focus is on closer working ties and identification of shared opportunities following several shared ventures over the last few years that will create one of the UK’s largest combined museums services.
This could be the start of a growing trend that sees strength in numbers, as the Mary Rose and National Museum of the Royal Navy announced last week their commitment to working more closely together with the aim of boosting the post-Covid offer of Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. Both venues open on 24 August and will be offering an ‘ultimate explorer’ joint ticket that also allows entry to HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, for up to a year. The initiative includes closer collaboration on marketing and operations and a brand refresh for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard as well.
DCMS’s announcement of the government rescue package of £1.57 billion for arts and heritage was received with cautious optimism. There was mention of boosting employment prospects for both permanent staff and freelancers with specific funding for projects that had been mothballed due to Covid, but there is still concern that money will not reach quickly enough areas where it is needed most. With grants available from £50,000 up to £3 million, distribution of funds in the GLAM sector has fallen to Arts Council England, Historic England and National Heritage Lottery Fund. Applications are open for the first phase of grants but, whilst eligibility is wide, the window is short.
More details here: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/culture-recovery-fund-grants#section-1
So, the government has announced its £1.57 billion rescue package for heritage and the arts, but the Culture Minister, Caroline Dinenage, said yesterday that the grants will not be paid until later in the summer and that they would be used to protect “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors” in the regions. Why late summer and not now? That will come far too late for some. And what exactly are the “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors”? Doubtless the crown jewels will turn out to be the big attractions in London, such as the theatres and national museums, taking the lion’s share of the pot to the detriment of many small local museums and theatres.
I have just finished watching Art of Persia, a three-part series on the BBC (still available on iPlayer). It is a stunning portrayal of an amazing country and its fabulous historical and cultural treasures and it made me long to go back. Visiting ancient archaeological sites and beautiful mosques and learning about the Sufi poets, Samira Ahmed was the perfect presenter - interested and enquiring, but making her presentation all about the sites she was seeing and not about her. She reveals how narrow the West’s understanding of Persian culture is. Yet, for 3,000 years, Persia has influenced culture across the world. This was one of the few nations to defeat the Roman Empire. Yet, for most of its existence, Persia was isolated, not least because it held on its own language, even when overrun by Islamic, Arabic-speaking, invaders. Even today, Iran is the only non-Arabic speaking country in the Middle East. The ethos of being Persian is still an integral part of Iranian culture today. Whatever your political views, it is a country well-worth visiting and the local people will welcome you with open arms and generous hospitality.
Back in 2018 I wrote about the 12-week old Weimaraner puppy that had joined Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley’s job is to sniff out bugs that can damage textiles in museum collections and, thereby, prevent an infestation taking hold.
I’m delighted to announce that an extended version of my post about Riley has been published on the Sniffing the Past blog. This site, edited by one of my doctoral supervisors, Chris Pearson, presents reflections about dogs in history and is well worth a read. I also write about dogs being trained to sniff out stolen historic artefacts and trafficked antiquities. Hats off to our canine companions who are starting to play a key role in the preservation of our culture and heritage.
The government has said that museums and galleries in England can open from 4 July provided that safety measures are implemented. Guidance developed by the National Museum Directors’ Council sets out nine considerations that need to be in place before re-opening to support the safety of staff and visitors. They have also created a suggested timeline to help museums plan their re-opening.
National museums in London have said that they are phasing their opening, but should all be open over the summer. But, how many smaller museums and galleries will be able to meet the requirements of social distancing...? As I’ve already reported, many well-known smaller venues have already announced that they are struggling. The Museums Association says that substantial financial aid is still needed to help the sector, but will the government see the necessity?
The National Archives has also produced guidelines to help archives plan for re-opening that include links to a checklist and risk management template:
But it is very odd that archives and libraries are still scheduled to be closed when shops, often far smaller spaces, are allowed to open and some archives already operate a booking system, so why not extend that? Most archive staff that I know have not been furloughed and there has to come a point where they simply have no more work that they can do from home. The benefits of access to libraries, museums and archives are well-documented so, for everyone’s well-being – staff, visitors and users – let’s see them re-opened sooner rather than later.
The impact of the Coronavirus on the heritage sector has hit close to home this week with the sad news that Fishbourne Palace may have to close. Fishbourne, situated just outside Chichester, is a Roman villa on a monumental scale that was comprised of four large residential wings around a courtyard garden. It is the largest residential building from the Roman period found in Britain. The outline of the walls, together with many stunning and elaborate mosaics, survives. It was built around 70AD by Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, king of the Regni, who was granted Roman citizenship and became fully assimilated into the Roman way of life. The site also houses the archaeological collections for Chichester District and serves as an important hub for academic research and both school-age and adult education, because it is a key site in explaining how the newly conquered province of Britain came to be absorbed culturally into the Roman empire.
Fishbourne is one of eight sites owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS), also known as Sussex Past, that have all been affected by the loss of visitors. SAS says that all its sites are threatened with closure due to a shortfall of £1 million in lost income. Next year marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of SAS and an appeal has been launched, supported by the historian, Tom Holland. Let’s hope it makes it to this momentous milestone.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture