As with many sectors at this current time, things are extremely tough. The majority of Highland museums perpetually walk a tightrope in terms of cash flow and the inability to open and generate income from admission fees and/or donations, shop purchases and cafe sales is having a devastating impact.
Whilst the size, self-sufficiency and resilience of our museums has allowed them to react more quickly to the initial crisis, the medium to long term picture for the sector is daunting. Most Highland museums operate as small independent charitable organisations with minimal public funding, which has decreased over recent years. Most are volunteer led with mainly part-time staff already on low pay scales and reliant on volunteers to keep all aspects of the museums work running and operating. Ironically, whilst this means our museums have had a little more time than the larger establishments to implement decision making, mitigating short-term effects by postponing their seasonal opening and furloughing staff, the overall picture is worrying. Some of our museums are looking at insolvency very quickly and while others will get through with support from reserves, those reserves will then be rapidly depleted.
We know of one museum in the Highlands facing immediate insolvency. The risk for many other museums is the impact on the critical loss of income from peak season trading which, in general is used to cover the costs during the lean months. Fixed running costs remain throughout the year and will carry on through the winter when little or no income will be taken to offset these costs. Museums are already reduced to looking to their reserves to cover costs, with strategic plans being sidelined to concentrate on short term security. Five of our museums are already using reserves with others planning to have to adopt this approach in the coming weeks. For most museums, any reserves that they have managed to build is as a result of an extremely creative and entrepreneurial approach in reaction to the substantial cuts from public funding over the past decade. The expectation that they could further apply efficiency savings or cuts to staffing costs is unfeasible.
Many of our museum staff are experienced in remote working, often as the sole employee in their organisation. Whilst the Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme is a welcome response from Government, it presents particular issues for our museums. Whilst the JRS gives museums some time and space to reorganize immediate cashflow, it potentially creates a vacuum in organisations where there is only one member of staff responsible for overseeing all aspects of museums day-to-day operations. Boards can take on some tasks but in museums where the only staff member is furloughed, most work, including planning for recovery, will cease. This is of fundamental concern in relation to care of collections and buildings. 2
There are a range of museums in the Highlands currently engaged in projects involving external funders. Whilst the experience is that most funders are being very supportive of delays to projects, there is a concern that the Covid-19 crisis will impact planning for future years and impact upon funding programmes overall. For those museums who are currently involved in large projects with only part funding secure, there is a significant degree of uncertainty and insecurity around how possible future match funding partners could either reprioritise funds or find their schemes diminished as we emerge from the crisis. Two of our museums have raised this issue.
This area is a huge concern for museums across the Highlands. Our museums exist in communities spread across some of the most remote, rural areas of Scotland and often act as hubs for social connection and engagement. Museums report feeling worried about the impact of museum closures on the health & wellbeing of their volunteer workforce and the loss of social connection. We know that there are over six hundred active volunteers working across the sector in our museums, in a range of activities. For many of them it is their primary social activity and vital in keeping them connected. Some museums are finding innovative ways to keep in touch with their volunteers, but others are concerned about both how volunteers will cope with social isolation and organisationally how they will retain volunteers who many may drift away during this time.
Museums are concerned about how they will continue to care for collections whilst lockdown means neither staff nor volunteers can leave their homes. Some museums have systems where the same person will check on the collections as infrequently as possible to ensure no harm comes to vulnerable items and ensure basic collections and stores maintenance. However, at least one museum has now been advised by insurers NOT to visit collections going forward.
A positive endnote!
The Covid-19 crisis has had an unexpected upside in creating space for some of our museums to innovate and use technology to grow their engagement with existing and new audiences. In a sector already used to having to be innovative, entrepreneurial, and nimble, we are proud of our museums ability to use these skills quickly to respond creatively to the new landscape.
Established in 2018, Museums & Heritage Highland (MHH) represents museums and heritage organisations across the Highlands. It works to raise standards and encourage collaboration and sustainability to support a strong and resilient heritage sector in the Highlands, embedded in local culture and responding to local communities’ needs.
Contact: Dan Cottam – Chair, Museums & Heritage Highland
Nicola Henderson – Project Manager, Museums & Heritage Highland