Museums in several European countries are pushing to be made exempt from harsh lockdown rules, while others say they can no longer financially cope.
In a letter to Germany’s federal and state cultural authorities, the directors of the country’s leading museums have called for a general reopening of these cultural institutions, to satisfy a population “starved of culture”.
Their counterparts in Switzerland are meanwhile appealing to “end the museum lockdown – for the intellectual good of all” in an open letter in late January.
“Our concern is to contain the pandemic, but at the same time to reopen the museums in a way that is adapted to the respective course of the coronavirus,” Swiss museum management say in a collective letter.
Museums in cities across Europe were largely reopened after the first wave of infections in spring 2020.
However weeks into a second major wave of infections marked by fears of faster-spreading strains of coronavirus, most museums in places like Denmark, Austria and Sweden and are not expected to reopen before March.
Several of Britain’s museums say they are now struggling to survive, due to loss of funds during a renewed lockdown.
The independent charity Art Fund announced in London in late January night that more help is needed to support smaller museums in particular.
“Our recent research found that six in ten museums, galleries and historic houses were worried about their survival,” said Art Fund chief executive Jenny Waldman.
“Tragically we are now seeing well-known and much-loved museums facing mothballing or permanent closure.”
Prominent sculptor Anish Kapoor has also said the country’s museums are facing major financial difficulties.
The Florence Nightingale Museum in London recently announced it was forced to close for the time being. “The pandemic has left us on our knees,” said museum director David Green.
He said it was not without a certain irony that this very museum was closing, as Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing, and her teachings paved the way for the current response during the pandemic.
Poland, however, is planning to carefully relax its coronavirus measures and reopen museums and galleries at the start of February, if certain hygiene requirements are met, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski in Warsaw announced on January 28. Shopping centres are also set to reopen.
Austria, too, has also considered reopening museums in February, albeit only if infections drop significantly.
Things are moving more slowly elsewhere, and the directors of Basel several institutions and the surrounding area say museums must soon resume offering “emotional support” as well as “peace, relaxation, inspiration and imagination.”
“If physical access is limited or even impossible, then there is a basic atrophy of education and culture in a society.”
In Germany, the museum owners say they “have already adapted their buildings to the new situation with great care after the phase of the first lockdown,” and go even further.
“The consensus is that [museums] have not been conspicuous as places of an infectious event since the beginning of the pandemic.”
However Germany’s health authorities say the closure of institutions such as museums was justified by the general need to reduce social contact, for example when travelling to and from museums by public transport.
Given infection numbers in many European countries, the exact source of an infection cannot always be determined, says the Robert Koch Institut leading Germany’s pandemic response, hence museums cannot be ruled out as a risk.