Museum closures during the pandemic

Mapping Museums project lead Fiona Candlin finds that despite the predictions, permanent museum closures are tracking previous years.

When museums first closed to visitors in March 2020 because of the national lockdown, their prospects seemed poor. In fact, only ten museums in the UK have permanently closed over the past year, significantly fewer than in previous years (there were 26 permanent closures in 2017 and 16 in 2018), and only two of those closures can be linked to the COVID crisis.

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. 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.

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 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. The volunteers were keen to relocate but two attempts fell through, and the museum had to close. The collections are in storage.

The Metropolitan Police Service Museum Heritage centre also found itself out of a home when the building changed use. 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. The Bruntingthorpe Aircraft Museum in Leicestershire closed in the summer of 2020 when the site was sold.

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. The West Wales Museum of Childhood also faced financial difficulties. The museum, located in at a farmstead in rural Camarthenshire, had closed for almost a year during the pandemic. The cost of running the site had become too much of a burden for the owners, Hilary and Paul Kennelly, who also had health difficulties. The couple had decided to downsize and early in 2021 moved the collection to a bungalow and associated outbuildings in Cambridgeshire.

All these museums were small, unaccredited, and, except for 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. Faced with budget cuts of around £10m, in 2019, the council decided to close the museum service. The closure of these museums was a subject of regret for the owners and 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 concentrated on the murder of five East End women. In September, the feminist historian Dr Louse Raw discovered that the company had declared insolvency.

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, health, 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.

Further information and support

This is an edit of a longer article on the Mapping Museums blog. For the full piece and more visit>>

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You can also see if the latest round of the Culture Recovery Fund from Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund could help your museum. See the guidance and links to apply here>>