The current plan for the reopening of London’s museums and galleries contains more grey areas than the concrete staircase at Switch House. Essentially, there is no overall strategy, as it varies from one institution to another depending on venue size, and whether or not the gallery is considered ‘non-essential retail’.
Since the government released its 60-page document, Our Plan to Rebuild, which vaguely outlines stages in the plan to reopen businesses, art trade associations have been lobbying for galleries and auction houses to be recognised as non-essential retail. On May 12, the Art Newspaper reported that they had succeeded, meaning that small commercial galleries and auction houses like Christie’s could be open as early as June 1. However, this would still require safety measures, as the venues would be required to meet the government guidelines for safe working, which specify the importance of maintaining the two-metre distance where possible ‘while in work, and when travelling between sites’. As these businesses require office working, as well as art handling and transportation to and from warehouses, this level of safety may not always be possible.
For large public galleries and museums, such as Somerset House and Tate Modern, the earliest possible opening date will be in the third phase of lockdown, estimated around July 4. Again, this will depend on whether or not the venue can introduce the appropriate safety measures. They will need to adapt. As Our Plan to Rebuild states, ‘some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to reopen safely at this point, or may be able to open safely only in part’.
Germany reopened some of its major galleries in April with safety measures in place, and their adjustments may give us an indication of what’s to come. At Museum Barberini art gallery in Berlin, you can now only book online, with a maximum stay of two hours. The Guardian reported that visitors to the gallery have to follow a set circular path to experience an exhibition, in order to manage crowds. Bechter Kastowsky Galerie in Vienna also reopened but advised visitors to bring masks.
We reached out to multiple museums and galleries for comment, including the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate, but the resounding response was that it’s just too early to tell when they can expect to reopen, or what the future will look like when they do.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, told us, ‘We will listen to government guidance when we receive it and the health and safety of our staff and visitors will continue to be our top priority. But we very much look forward to welcoming visitors back when it is safe to do so.’
Jonathan Reekie, director of Somerset House, told Time Out that, while the museum has a plan in place, things will continue to change as further guidance is given: ‘Like everyone else, we’re monitoring the situation day by day and following all government guidance, which currently states that Somerset House will not be able to reopen to the public until July 4 at the absolute earliest,’ he explained. Reekie added that the museum’s current plan ensures social distancing at a reduced capacity and additional hygiene measures. If necessary, they will introduce a timed booking system.
Smaller London museums which receive little or no government funding and rely on entry fees to stay afloat have been hit particularly hard by the crisis. For venues like the Charles Dickens Museum, the future is even more uncertain. Some, such as Dennis Severs’ House have set up campaigns to help support their chance of reopening.
If landmark galleries do manage to reopen in July, we should expect the way we experience the art within them to be quite different. At least in the short term, there won’t be much of a chance to wander freely around gallery spaces or spend half an hour in front of a single painting. Wearing a mask to Tate Modern could become the new normal.
In the meantime, take a tour through the collections of museums and galleries across London.
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