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UN agency warns pandemic could force closure of 1 in 8 museums worldwide

About 85,000 institutions, about 90 per cent of the planet’s museums, have shut at least temporarily

Museums are starting to reopen in some countries as governments ease coronavirus restrictions, but experts warn one in eight worldwide could face permanent closure due to the pandemic. Studies by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums show 90 per cent of the planet’s museums, some 85,000 institutions, have had to shut at least temporarily.

Masked visitors look at bronze statues in Rome’s Capitoline Museums on Tuesday.

“It is alarming data that we are giving,” Ernesto Ottone, assistant director general for culture at UNESCO said in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday. He said the problem cuts across the board, affecting museums big and small, new and established, featuring art or science. Museums that indicated they might well not reopen, he said, “have been closed for months and they have no revenues. And they don’t know how they’re going to get their revenues.”

And once they do reopen, Ottone said, “they [won’t] have the capacity to update their infrastructure” to conform with social distancing and other pandemic precautions.

Some costly blockbuster shows have suffered heavy damage this spring. A once-in-a-lifetime exhibit bringing together fragile paintings by Flemish master Jan van Eyck had barely opened in Ghent, Belgium, when it was abruptly cancelled. It won’t be resumed, as many of the works were on loan and had to be returned.

In Rome, a similar supershow on Renaissance artist Raphael had to close after just three days, but was able to hold on to all 120 works and will now reopen June 2 through Aug. 30. Overall, the picture is dark, more Munch than Monet.

“Nearly 13 per cent of museums around the world may never reopen,” UNESCO and ICOM said in a joint statement, saying those in poorer countries faced a greater risk. The Network of European Museum Organizations said large institutions in tourist hotspots like Paris, Amsterdam or Vienna have suffered income losses of up to 80 per cent, that can reach hundreds of thousands of euros a week.

Places like the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, could lose up to €2.5 million ($2.75 million US) a month. Ottone said matters were particularly tough in Latin America, “where 99.4 per cent of all museums are closed right now.”

“So you have a continent that doesn’t have anything open,” Ottone said. “It’s the first time in our history and it will be very difficult to come out from this crisis for those institutions.”

Leaders champion museums

It is little wonder that royalty and prime ministers are now lining up to boost their cultural institutions.

“We have to show our support at the maximum level to this sector by coming here, to show that they are open again and that people can come back here in complete safety, but also by taking measures and decisions … to support them,” Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said Tuesday, touring the re-opened Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels.

Belgium’s King Philippe, centre left, and Queen Mathilde, centre right, visit the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels on Tuesday. World museums are hesitantly starting to reopen as coronavirus lockdown measures are relaxed.

Across Europe, such reopenings provide some hope. In Berlin, four museums and one special exhibit that reopened had 10,000 visitors over the past week — about 43 per cent of last year’s level for the same week. Visitors need to buy tickets for a particular time slot, which limits the number of visitors. In Italy, one-time epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, the Villa Borghese and the Capitoline museums, both home to Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures, reopened on Tuesday.

There’s still no reopening date set for Italy’s biggest cultural draws, including the Uffizi in Florence and the Vatican Museums or the Colosseum in Rome. The same goes for France. Big hitters, such as the Louvre — the world’s most visited museum — and the Pompidou Center remain shuttered after an easing of restrictions May 11. Greece reopened its ancient sites — including the Acropolis — Monday, and set a June 15 date for museums.

CBC/MS

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