By Andrew Lovett, Chief Executive – Black Country Living Museum
I lead a museum. Having doors that we are allowed to open, to welcome visitors, is what we do. Anything short of that is always going to be disappointing – for us and the people who have come to value us as an important part of their lives.
Last November I spoke at my Father’s funeral. At such times, dates and history take on a prominence. They create a framework for our lives. Our lives happen chronologically. Dates remind us about the relationship between events, and that one event happens because of something that has gone before. We can see and better understand patterns of behaviour. Dates throw into relief that although we live our lives going forwards, we can only learn by looking backwards. At dates. We might even better understand our own place in the world. That’s what museums are about. That is the ‘business’ I’m in.
At the end of 2020 I finalised the Museum’s annual review, describing the significant achievements and events of 2019. But as I wrote it, we were still in the midst of the pandemic and it felt wrong and disingenuous. So, whilst I went on to highlight the best of our impact in 2019, I had to start by talking about the current situation the Museum faced, and continues to face.
It was telling in itself that I was preparing the review six months later than would normally be the case. That wasn’t just because our priorities had taken our minds and energies elsewhere; rather it had been necessary to delay approval by the Board and sign-off by our auditors, until we had a clearer and more favourable picture of our future, including as a ‘going concern’. And you don’t get more fundamental than that. The situation confronting the Museum – the worst in its 42 year history – was being repeated across the UK and to some extent that was a relief. I say relief, because we learnt from each other, especially other museums, and harvested support from our friends and extensive networks.
Initially, and naturally, we were concerned with looking inwards, to our own immediate situation. However, as time went on the national impact became stark, and our attention started to include lobbying for significant external support to ensure our survival. That said, we took strength from peoples’ support for the Museum. It reminded us how important the Museum is, especially, but not limited, to the community of the Black Country.
My greatest relief has been that we have not faced a significant health issue amongst our c275 staff, volunteers, or Trustees, although there have been bereavements and illness, including in my own family. The Museum closed to visitors on 18 March 2020, and effectively became out-of-bounds to staff and volunteers, as non-essential travel restrictions also came into force after the Prime Minister announced the UK’s nationwide lockdown on 23 March 2020. Three days later, the Board of Trustees met, against a background of “an immediate and near-total collapse of trading revenues, with a concomitant impact on the Museum’s financial sustainability in the short and medium term”.
At the height of the national lockdown, the Board was meeting every two weeks through the now ubiquitous channel of Zoom, with five extra meetings taking place before the Museum was able to reopen on 1 August 2020, 136 days after we were forced to close. Only to be forced to close again in December, as the second wave hit.
Despite reopening in August, the loss of visitor attendance in 2020 was both enormous and depressing; amounting to a decline of 75%, to around 90,000, compared to what we regard as a normal year. The closure for four and a half months was all the more overwhelming after six years of year-on-year growth.
The financial impact on the Museum is brought into relief by the scale of tax-payer support that it has been essential to secure in order to see a viable future. At the time of writing the total is already £5.3m, including £1.6m from the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, £1.175m Arts Council England, and £2.559m from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.
Running alongside the challenges of operating the Museum during COVID-19, the Museum’s major capital project, Forging Ahead, was slowed, but never put on-hold, with design work, costings and site preparations continuing. It has been necessary to re-programme completion dates and the impact of COVID-19 has added to costs. However, work on the project has regained its pace, and we all recognise its importance to our future – perhaps even more so now. Oh and did I mention we needed an extra £5.95m, from the Government and National Lottery, to get it back on track.
Despite all this, we remind ourselves that prior to COVID-19, the Museum was successful, enjoyed a large and loyal following, was financially strong and has been better placed than many to ride out these challenges and once again have its eyes on fulfilling its potential and provide a positive impact to peoples’ lives.
Tomorrow I get my jab. At the Black Country Living Museum. Where else would I go?