The great majority of UK university museums closed to the public last Tuesday, or otherwise last week – a step that most of us never imaged taking. We’re very much aware that this time has been enormously difficult from a professional angle for colleagues across the sector, as well as more personally, as some are going into self-isolation and others are deeply concerned about friends and family members who may be vulnerable or unwell.
A routine UMG committee meeting was scheduled for Thursday 19 March. With the support of Julia Cunningham, Nicola’s PA, we ran a dial-in meeting involving, in addition to ourselves, Janneke Geene (Treasurer; MMU), Jo McPhee (Secretary; Cambridge), Esme Ward (Manchester), Xa Sturgis (Oxford), Tannis Davidson (UCL), Harriet Warburton (Oxford), Carol Shiels (St George’s, London), Mungo Campbell (Glasgow) and Kat Nilsson (UCL) participated.
We set aside the standing agenda and shared notes regarding the COVID-19 emergency and its impact on our institutions. We noted among areas of particular concern for University museums:
- As universities enforce estate closures, it may be challenging to maintain access to buildings and collections. While some universities readily recognize that laboratories with live animals require special arrangements, we confront what is at many institutions a longstanding issue, that museums are not quite on the radar of the university leadership or those responsible for estate management. Yet we do require access to sustain environmental monitoring, especially as we are entering the season in which pests are a greater threat; the usual seasonal threat may be exacerbated as spaces are darker, less occupied and less visited.
- We are similarly concerned by threats to the security of buildings and collections. It is critical that security staffing and monitoring is maintained. The recent theft from Christ Church, Oxford, was noted. Some criminals may seek to take advantage of current circumstances.
- The financial impact of closure will be considerable, particularly for those institutions which charge for special exhibition entry and/or generate critical revenue from retail, catering and venue hire.
- We are mindful of the duty of care to staff, including those on temporary or flexible contracts. In principle, institutions seek to safeguard salaries; in practice, what is possible will depend on institutional policies (at the university level) and the capacity and willingness of institutions to fund positions (and whether they are eligible to draw on government support announced.
- We need to think creatively about how to design work packages for those who will be working from home, and around scope for redeploying staff, such as visitor services staff, who cannot undertake their normal work during closure (but may be able to support our online engagement; or contribute to documentation projects).
- We need to continue supporting and engaging our volunteers during the period of closure to the public.
- We need to do whatever we can in support of the wellbeing of our staff – through informal contacts such as online coffee mornings or quick catch-ups by phone.
- Where university museums are closely engaged in specific teaching programmes, consideration will need to be given to supporting students, in the absence of scope for hands-on, artefact-based work, which has become a particularly strength of the work of many institutions in recent years.
- Given, similarly, the centrality of research support and impact in our advocacy, we will need to assess the consequences of the cancellation or postponement of exhibitions and programmes that are important to REF impact cases. It is as yet unclear whether any rescheduling of the REF census date or assessment process may be considered.
- Across institutions, temporary exhibitions have or will be cancelled or rescheduled. In many cases significant funds and time have been invested in their preparation. In many instances there will be complex knock-on consequences (e.g. in the case of multi-venue touring exhibitions: one postponement may impact the schedules of multiple institutions). Similarly, many museums have loans out that were due to be couriered back to our museums in coming months. In some instances, extensions will need to be sought for time-limited indemnity arrangements.
- Many museums have stated that they aim to remain ‘open’ online. Redeployed staff may be able to contribute to an enhanced digital presence. Institutions with larger teams are better placed to adapt and enhance their profile.
- As with the broader emergency, we have little sense at present of the likely duration of closures. In due course, institutions will need to engage in longer-term planning, taking into consideration the impact of lost revenue.
In this gravely challenging context, the University Museums Group should support members as fully as our capacity permits.
- We will support the sector through responsive communication, via the JISC list, the website and social media. Members should not hesitate to put out a call if they are in the need of guidance and support.
- We will seek clarification from funders regarding the suspension of award requirements (along the lines ACE has already announced, for National Portfolio Organisations), and parallel mechanisms such as no-cost extensions for project grants. (E.g. the Director of the Pilgrim Trust has recently written to grant recipients indicating that they are receptive to requests to adapt project plans and timescales). Any member may write to the Secretary and Co-Chairs to suggest that we seek similar assurances from any agencies that have not already announced them.
- The Co-Chairs have already communicated with Research England regarding HEMG funding, and received a holding reply.
- Our support and communication will aim to be relevant to member institutions of all kinds, on different scales and with different vulnerabilities.
- We will sustain engagement and communication with key organisations and stakeholders including NMDC, the MA, ACE and UUK.
- As the emergency passes, we will support university museums seeking to contribute pro-actively, in re-establishing and reinvigorating research, the student experience and civic engagement, for example through support for smaller cultural organisations in our communities.
- We will support the advocacy of museums within their universities.
The UMG Committee will meet again, virtually, in approximately a month and will provide a further update at that time. In the interim, we will circulate notes from sector meetings we have been invited to; members should feel free to use the JISC list to circulate questions among peers, or email the Secretary and Co-Chairs with questions that may be more focussed or confidential. We may not have answers ourselves but will aim to liaise with whichever colleagues may be best placed to provide advice, in order to share effective responses across the membership and our sector.
Nicholas Thomas and Nicola Kalinksy
University Museums Group