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British Museums Face Covid’s Long-Term Effects

British Museums Face Covid’s Long-Term Effects

LONDON — The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has one of Britain’s most eccentric collections of treasures.

In one room of the decorative and applied arts museum sits the Great Bed of Ware, a 10-foot-wide four-poster bed that was such a popular tourist attraction in 16th-century England that William Shakespeare mentioned it in “Twelfth Night.” A short walk away, a pair of Nike running shoes are on display.

But during several recent visits to the V&A, as the museum is known, some of the eclectic displays were off limits. On a Sunday in September, a small sign at the entrance announced that its British galleries were closed. So were the furniture exhibits. And so was much of the ceramics collection.

The sign didn’t offer any explanation, but a museum assistant said that because the museum laid off employees in a post-lockdown belt tightening, galleries were often shut.

“It’s best to call ahead if you want to see something,” she said.

Within weeks, Hunt dropped the plan. Through a spokeswoman, he declined several interview requests for this article, but in August he told The Daily Telegraph that he “could see the force of their argument.” The museum has still cut department budgets by 10 to 12 percent and continues to limit the days that it is open to five a week, as opposed to seven before the pandemic.

Even after those cutbacks, the museum often does not have enough staff members to open all of its galleries. Of the 166 assistants who guarded the collection before March 2020, only 93 now remain. Steven Warwick, a representative for the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents many museum staff members, said assistants now must patrol double the floor space and are finding it difficult to stop visitors from “interfering with the objects.”

Cuts to other departments at the V&A, like the education and conservation teams, will potentially have longer-term effects, according to three former staff members.

Tessa Murdoch, the museum’s former keeper of sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass, said the loss of expertise in curatorial teams might damage the quality of the museum’s exhibit labeling and its ability to process loans. Eric Turner, a former curator of metalwork, said the museum’s curators and conversation workers would be under more pressure to produce more during the same working hours.

In an email to The New York Times, Phoebe Moore, a V&A spokeswoman, said “no area” of the museum’s curatorial work was at risk. “We don’t anticipate any impact on the care of the collections,” she said, adding that some galleries were closed because of “unexpected levels of sickness and absence, not a result of the restructure.”

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