Cultural institutions in crisis
Museums and galleries face crippling pandemic losses as voices calling for restitution and greater social responsibility grow louder
Financial Times, January 2 2021
The pandemic has devastated the culture sector as brutally as every other aspect of society. Covid-19 is hitting museums and galleries in the public sphere even harder than those in the commercial sector, which at least have the opportunity of online trading. Visitors to museums have dropped about 80 per cent this year, partly because of enforced closures, partly because of the public’s reluctance to travel or visit public places.
Tate recently announced that it expects to welcome one million visitors instead of eight million by the end of April. Its statement said: “For every £10 we were expecting to make this year, we are only receiving £4, and we expect to lose £56m in self-generated income.” In the US, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has warned of a shortfall of at least $150m for the 2020-21 financial year. Visitor numbers are not expected to recover fully for at least two to three years.
Financial losses from Covid-19 are not the only challenges museums face. Well before the pandemic, environmental and social activists were holding western institutions vigorously to account. Museums were already struggling with issues of diversity — both in staffing and, more importantly, in representation in their collections — the status of objects in those collections and calls for restitution. The situation is further complicated by criticism of many traditional sources of philanthropic funding and ongoing concern for the environment.
The Black Lives Matter movement and other world events put a renewed spotlight on racism, illuminating the “white gaze” of western institutions. Even as museums scrambled to promise that change was afoot, they found themselves ensnared in further criticism. “Did our lives matter when you STOLE ALL OUR THINGS?” retorted writer Stephanie Yeboah when Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, tweeted solidarity for Black Lives Matter. Yeboah thus yoked racism into the charged question of restitution.
In Germany, the virtual opening of the mighty Humboldt Forum in Berlin, 10 years and €600m in the making, has fanned the flames of controversy about artefacts from the country’s Ethnological Museum, many of which will be displayed in the grand new museum. The issue of who holds and curates African heritage pieces came to the fore when Nigeria’s ambassador to Germany wrote last month to Chancellor Angela Merkel demanding the return of precious bronzes looted from Benin. Despite its ambition and splendour, it is hard not to feel that the Humboldt Forum is designed on a museum model already out of date.
Other countries are working to counteract the historic effects of that traditional model. In the Netherlands, new legislation is being drawn up to effect “unconditional returns” of objects to their countries of origin. Meanwhile, in France last month the National Assembly voted to return 26 colonial objects to Benin and one to Senegal. Such initiatives signal that calls for restitution are being taken more seriously than ever before.
These moves throw into relief the reluctance of other institutions to follow suit. The British Museum is yet to return a single bronze to Benin — it has about 800 of them — but has created a new strand entitled “Collecting and Empire” to illuminate and acknowledge the sometimes nefarious back stories to many of the institution’s eight million artefacts. But by omitting the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes, critics say it is little more than window dressing. “It’s still fundamentally conservative,” says Alice Proctor, author of The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It….