It’s time to dust off the exhibits, but will there be the footfall?

By Francesca Vine: Arts Columnist

With the world slowly adjusting to the ‘new normal’ museums and galleries are beginning to re-open in earnest. Given that ICOM, the International Council of Museums, has instructed institutions to prioritise permanent collections over special exhibitions, essential work needs to be carried out to preserve objects and artworks and to return museums and galleries to a state where they can once again welcome visitors through their doors.

During lockdown, institutions have kept a skeleton conservation staff overseeing essential work, with only limited cleaning being carried out. However, following the lifting of lockdown, teams of conservationists at the British Museum are conducting their most extensive deep clean in decades.

A team of over thirty specialist staff have been working solidly to remove potentially dangerous dust particles from the surfaces of exhibits on display over the last three weeks. According to Fabiana Portoni, a preventative conservator at the museum, the build-up of these particles on ancient artefacts has been known to cause damage longer-term. The particles originate both from local traffic pollution near the museum building and from visitors bringing them in on their clothing and shedding hair fibres. Although lockdown helpfully reduced the influx of these dust particles, on the other hand, the lack of airflow from visitors moving through the galleries has led to dust building up in areas it wouldn’t normally be expected to. As a result, extensive condition checks are being followed up by careful removal of the dust using both chemicals and physical dusting. Great caution has to be employed for these tricky procedures to avoid any damage to delicate surfaces.


With the end of lockdown, other institutions are looking forward to the future, like The Courtauld Gallery, which has just acquired new watercolours by William Gaunt and Archibald Standish Hartrick and The National Gallery, London, which has just acquired its first paining by Joaquίn Sorolla, following its 2019 exhibition of the artist’s work. Despite this, acquisitions are likely to be further down the list for many museums and galleries, with acquisitions committees being on the ICOM’s list of activities to be postponed where possible and institutions low on funds due to closures and the added expense of implementing social distancing and other Covid-19-related measures.

Among several new rules, ICOM has stipulated that, behind the scenes, museums should have a quarantine area for objects which is separate from the main collections, should divide staff teams into isolated ‘bubbles’ and has suggested extending inter-museum loans to avoid transport and handling.

Art curation involves maintenance at microscopic level to protect art: Photo Clem Onjeguo

The institutions that have already opened are instituting one-way systems, compulsory masks, contactless bag checks and a strict pre-booking scheme, leaving the visitor’s experience very different now, when compared with the beginning of the year. The Science Museum in South Kensington, which has a particular focus on interactive exhibits, has pledged to keep these cleaned on a strict schedule to minimise risk of Covid transmission. Rome’s blockbuster, once-in-a-lifetime Raphael exhibition on the 500th anniversary of his death has, extraordinarily, just announced that it will be open 24 hours a day in its final stretch to cope with huge demand, allowing it to still maintain safe social distancing measures.

It seems that for museums and galleries the darkness is finally lifting to reveal a very new kind of dawn.

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