Are museums as Covid-risky as saunas? Culture leaders outraged over late reopening of English art spaces

Commercial galleries, non-essential retail, and even gyms have been given the green light to open before museums under the UK government's "roadmap" to lift coronavirus restrictions

“Indoor entertainment" including museums, cinemas—and saunas—can open from 17 May at the earliest, in “step three” of England's strategy Sauna photo: Jorge Royan

“Indoor entertainment" including museums, cinemas—and saunas—can open from 17 May at the earliest, in “step three” of England's strategy Sauna photo: Jorge Royan

Culture leaders have vented their frustration at the UK government’s decision to reopen museums across England on 17 May (at the earliest), questioning why non-essential retail, including commercial galleries, and other public buildings such as libraries can open five weeks earlier on 12 April.

The four-step plan for lifting Covid-19 restrictions was announced earlier this week by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons. The official guidance states that “indoor entertainment, such as museums, cinemas and children’s play areas” can open from 17 May at the earliest, in “step three” of the plan.

But the government’s strategy has drawn fire from museum sector professionals. Nick Merriman, the chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Garden in London, wrote on Twitter: “Museums are opening under step 3, like saunas and steam rooms (other parts of gyms and spas can open under step 2). I seem to have been working with a different conception of my sector for my whole career.”

Elizabeth McKay, the chief operating officer at the London Transport Museum, also wrote on Twitter: “Still trying to wrap my head around the logic that I can get my hair cut and go to a gym or library on 12 April but must wait until 17 May to go to a museum.... ?!”

Urgent attempts are being made to unpack the rationale for the decision to set 12 April for the safe re-opening of non-essential shops but has kept museums closed, writes The Art Newspaper editor Alison Cole in our March issue.

“The present scenario begs two questions: where is the champion within government for a vigorous independent visual arts sector? And who, in government, is making the case for arts and heritage’s vital role in cultural education, navigating our complex history and identities, healing social division, promoting creativity and imagination, and contributing to mental health and well-being—in addition to the sector’s hugely significant impact on tourism and the economy,” she says.

A UK government spokesperson says: “We will seek to reopen museums and galleries at step three which is in line with other indoor entertainment and leisure venues as part of our approach to ease restrictions without putting pressure on the NHS and avoiding a further lockdown.”

The National Trust’s parks and gardens remain open but a spokesman says there will be “different elements [regulations]” for different areas, from retail outlets to the properties themselves (to be confirmed). Sculpture parks and some outdoor cultural spaces in England are nonetheless able to open before 12 April. The Henry Moore Studios & Gardens in Hertfordshire is able to welcome visitors from 31 March “in compliance with all Covid-19 restrictions”, says a statement. Yorkshire Sculpture Park meanwhile remains open.

The Scottish artist Rachel Maclean will unveil her first outdoor installation at Jupiter Artland sculpture park outside Edinburgh on 8 May. But senior museum figures in Scotland have expressed their bewilderment at the Scottish government’s failure to address in its roadmap plan when museums will reopen. Katrina Brown, the director of the Common Guild gallery in Glasgow, tweeted that “there is absolutely zero mention of museums and galleries” in the plan though a more detailed announcement is expected in the coming weeks.