In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is forced to live the same day again and again. When lockdown 2.0 was announced, I thought about this movie. As the person responsible for the management of Cheshire West’s four museums, this new lockdown felt sad and surreal. But, like Murray who eventually breaks the Groundhog Day cycle, we now know that a period of enforced reflection can also have a positive impact.
As in the earlier lockdown in March, it’s not just the disappointment of postponing all of the planned exhibitions, events, school and group visits, there’s also the daunting logistical exercise of shutting four completely different museums.
The Lion Salt Works Museum is a Scheduled Ancient Monument which means it has the same protection status as Stonehenge. Meanwhile, Stretton Watermill is more than 700 years old, small and made entirely of wood. In Chester, Grosvenor Museum houses significant collections (Roman artefacts to Georgian silver), all requiring consistent ambient conditions. Weaver Hall Museum is a large Victorian former workhouse.
If you had to suddenly leave home, you might turn off the heating, empty the fridge and ask neighbours to take care of your post and switch off the lights. My checklist for closing museums was a little longer. Top of my to-do list was to check staff safety and welfare, updating teams via WhatsApp ‘trees’. My other priority was to safeguard the collections, ensuring that buildings were not only secure but that collections were regularly monitored. This involved enabling contractors to undertake the cyclical checks for building safety and maintenance, as well as one-off works like the need to chlorinate water systems to prevent Legionnaires’ disease. Who knew?
In March, the big, unknown questions were ‘how long will this last?’ and ‘when can we re-open?’ A national museum’s CEO succinctly summed up the challenge: “It is like a big white jigsaw.”
When everything stops so fundamentally, some things become clear. In our case it was that museums and the history they represent give everyone a sense of perspective at a time of profound change and uncertainty. So, while we waited for clarity on the timeline of the museums’ physical re-opening, we immediately started ‘recovering’ our museums by going online. During the first lockdown, a piece of art from the Grosvenor Museum’s collection was uploaded daily, former exhibitions went online, short films went out to schools, craft activities for children and adults were put online, and we took part in a nationwide Museums of Home digital day.
By May, we had developed a five-phase recovery plan and had made the decision to re-open in late July. Many staff were shielding, vulnerable or home-schooling so the decision to take baby steps to re-open was an easy one, driven by the numbers of staff available.
My mantra during these tumultuous days, again not my own quote, was to ‘Move at the Speed of Trust’, by which I mean that the staff who were re-opening the museums must have involvement and confidence in the processes and systems which they would then communicate to returning visitors. We started small, opening two days a week at first and gradually building up to five days.
Armed with hazard tape and signage, the visitor services teams began to mark out one-way routes (in some cases using back stairs to facilitate this). We became experts on PPE, screens, face-coverings and sanitation stations. We organised pre-booking entry and, in the case of Lion Salt Works, where our fantastic volunteer tour guides had been temporarily unable to show visitors round, we now have an online tour.
The pandemic has forced us to adapt. We have had a chance to really think about how we curate and use our collections with our communities and it has accelerated our planned transition into the digital realm with blended physical and digital engagement. Our five-year Curating Change development plan anticipated many of the changes we are now making, but COVID-19 has been the catalyst to make great progress in a short time.
There have been overwhelming moments including the more unexpected lockdown 2.0. But we have benefited from networking and exploring best practice with regional, national and international museums. Online seminars and virtual conferences have helped us to navigate some of the tightropes we find ourselves on. We have also gained tremendous solace from knowing that no one immediately has all the answers – it is about taking one step at a time.
As we move into the future, looking forward to re-opening in December after the end of Lockdown 2.0, we are taking a few risks and making a few mistakes. But we are also making new connections and collaborating to share skills and create new ways of doing things. In short, we are daring to change.
By Kate Harland, senior learning and operations manager, West Cheshire Museums
All images courtesy of West Cheshire Museums.
The museum is closed until December 2, 2020. To ensure the safety of staff and visitors, the Lion Salt Works has introduced revised opening times and pre-booking. To guarantee admission, places must be booked in advance. To pre-book a visit, contact the museum on 01606 275066. Opening times and booking procedures may change at short notice, please check this website before planning a visit.