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Charles Dickens Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of Charles Dickens Museum

London’s small museums warn they might not survive


Major London museums and galleries such as Tate Modern, National Gallery and the Design Museum have all quickly adapted to online programming as a result of temporary closure. But while time and money at big institutions are invested in virtual tours, the BBC has reported that the city’s smaller, independent museums, which are not backed by large grants or government funding, are facing a very real risk of closure.

Special-interest institutions such as Dennis Severs’ House and the Charles Dickens Museum rely on visitor entrance fees to remain open, and while the city is in lockdown, they may not survive. The Florence Nightingale Museum, for example, receives 98 percent of its income from its admission fees, and was anticipating a landmark year for visitors with the bicentennial of Florence Nightingale’s birth landing in 2020.

The Florence Nightingale Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of The Florence Nightingale Museum

David Green, the museum’s director said, ‘Our 2020 bookings diary was full with exhibitions and events. We enjoyed our busiest ever day in February half-term, but soon after the effects of the pandemic kicked in and numbers started to fall… Prolonged closure and decimated tourist markets now threaten the future of the museum as we rely heavily on admissions income to support our small charity, which receives no core funding from the government or elsewhere.’

The Charles Dickens Museum gets no regular public funding, and also relies heavily on admissions, shop sales and café profits to keep the attraction alive. The museum had a record-breaking February for visitors, but when March hit, its income had halved. Since the museum officially closed on March 18, no money has been coming in at all, and there’s no clarity on when it will be able to reopen. Cindy Sughrue, director of the museum said: ‘Whenever we reopen, we expect it to be a slow recovery because our audience will be greatly affected… We don’t expect overseas visitors to return for some months, probably not for a year in the usual numbers. Also, some of our visitors fall into the categories that may be asked to remain socially distant for longer.’ 

Museums can apply for Arts Council and National Heritage Emergency Funding, but it is highly competitive. Right now the focus for government funding, as Sughrue acknowledges, is ‘quite rightly’ on frontline charities, so for now, the museum is focusing what the future will look like, in what she calls the ‘recovery phase’: ‘I don’t expect to see any announcements about recovery support just yet, but now is the time to be planning for the recovery of the heritage and tourism sector that is so vital to London’s economy.’ 

Dennis Severs’s House
Dennis Severs’ House. Photographer: Roelof Bakker

Dennis Severs’ House, a time-capsule attraction in an East End Huguenot home which recreates life in Spitalfields from 1724 and 1914, is appealing for support by offering special vouchers visitors can use at the museum post-lockdown. For £60, you can get an ’Exclusive Silent Night Visit’ where you can wander through the house’s ten rooms after hours. The institution is run by a very small team, currently squirrelled away at home trying to find ways to keep the museum from slipping under. They assured us in a press release that their resident museum cat ‘Madge Whitechapel’ is still being ‘fed, watered and well looked after’. 

In a BBC series praising small museums like these, Melvyn Bragg claimed, ‘to close a museum is to close down memory’. We need to do all we can to try and keep those memories alive, and ensure those eccentric attractions and lovingly preserved collections stored in London’s creaky townhouses do not disappear for good. 

Need some good Dickens news? You can book tickets for ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Old Vic this winter.

Find out how a London WWII vet has raised £13 million for the NHS. 

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