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The Big Rethink: Chris Stephens

Director The Holburne Museum

During a recent conversation with the Holburne’s trustees, we agreed on the catch-phrase of the moment: ‘Nobody knows’. How long will this last? Nobody knows. Will visitors come in their droves, or mostly stay away? Nobody knows. Will we be back to normal before Christmas? Next year? Ever? Nobody knows. What will the ‘new normal’ look like?… And so on.

The Covid-19 lockdown has been devastating for museums and galleries and I am sure there will be some who go to the wall as a result. But there have been many positives for our sector. I have been struck by the levels of cooperation and support. This is especially true locally, with Bath’s cultural organisations coming together to share ideas, concerns and opportunities, but also nationally and between different sectors of the economy. Many of us have moved activity online and found a ready and engaged audience. This was achieved in the absence of most staff and the energy and creativity of reduced teams has been exciting to watch.

Art and museums really do matter to people at a visceral level, and they really do change people’s lives.

There has been a recognition of the importance and value of institutions like the Holburne locally and nationally. I sense acceptance of the fact that Bath’s unique ecosystem of small museums is of real value to the visitor economy as well as to residents, and unquestionably the Arts Council and DCMS have recognised that independent museums who have found ways of operating without any public subsidy are the most at risk. For the Holburne, the most moving signal of our value was that our emergency crowdfunding appeal attracted hundreds of donations from people we did not know. When the BBC News posted a rather alarmist report of our situation on their website, we got over 200 donations in 24 hours. And that provided the most important reminder in these strange, reflective times: that museums are about people, individuals and communities. Without public funding, places like the Holburne rely on ticket sales for survival, but it’s not just about numbers, it is also about the depth of our impact. Art and museums really do matter to people at a visceral level, and they really do change people’s lives.

Museums and galleries are where you encounter extraordinary things in ways that no virtual experience can emulate, and they are social spaces for shared wonderment, discussion and debate. Our enforced closure has helped us recognise our place in the community and the coincidence of this crisis with the renewed energy of the Black Lives Matter movement has emphasised how vital it is that that place is open to everyone. With our friends at the American Museum and the Roman Baths, we are finally welcoming back visitors and celebrating the opportunity to resume what we exist to do. Museums and galleries face a challenging future but I believe we approach it strengthened by a reinforced belief in the value of what we all do and energised by a true commitment to do it better and more inclusively.


See some of our other Big Rethink commentaries: