The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a historic decline in museum attendance in Brussels, Belgium and around
the world. As the first cultural places to reopen after confinement, museums provide a necessary breath of
fresh air for our situations of physical and mental isolation. Behind the scenes, however, the sector is
currently at risk of asphyxiation.
The year 2020 will not have spared the museums with successive closures from 14 March to 18 May and from 23 October to 1 December, the cancellation of events, the reduction in the offer of mediation crucial for the democratization of culture, the necessary restrictions on the number of visitors and the glaring absence of tourists from abroad in a city where the most central establishments welcome them in large numbers. As far as attendance is concerned, we can speak of a real cataclysm with 2.100.000 entries in 2020, i.e. 58% fewer than in 2019. For the month of their reopening in December, however, the museums counted 152.000 admissions, an encouraging return, with even a few museums posting "sold out" during the winter holidays. However, despite the good figures in December, we are still at minus 53% compared with December 2019.
The museums with the greatest loss in attendance are those that generally receive a large number of tourists. Flagship exhibitions, niche exhibitions or museums with a more local anchorage fare better overall.
A silent social drama
For many people working in the sector, guides, cultural mediation services, technicians or scenographers, it is a silent social drama that is played out in real time. With the sometimes abrupt and forced termination of temporary or freelance contracts. Not to mention the situations of short-time working that have been occurring since March... There are little perspectives. As for the medium and long-term responses, they are more than expected. This complete uncertainty is shared by artists who have been hit the hardest by the crisis, which clearly reveals the inequalities and structural precariousness that already exist in the sector.
From an economic point of view, an estimate made among Brussels museums puts the amount of their financial losses at around 20,000,000 euros. The future is therefore threatened or at least not very bright for many cultural venues which, depending on their funding structures, will in any case have to reduce their activities, sometimes drastically, for years, or even, for some perhaps, simply close their doors.
When will there be a real structural consultation with the whole sector?
Faced with these alarming facts, museums are apparently adapting to everything: health protocols set up in a short space of time and applied strictly, reorganized visitor itineraries, digitization of their activities, events redesigned in small format or virtually... Everything is in place so that museums can keep on welcoming the public in complete safety. But will they be able to operate without a net for much longer? Will we be confronted with the absurd situations in the United States where private institutions have already gone so far as to sell works in order to survive? Do we wish to empty of their substance the places where socialization, cultural exchanges and the pleasure of contemplation can coexist? Aren't these essential needs, especially at the present time?
The reopening of museums offers a message of hope in Belgium, but it is a fragile recovery which alone will not solve the sector's pitfalls. We are once again advocating for a real consultation with the entire cultural sector, for the development of a long-term vision. The all-or-nothing logic, between opening and closing, is not an acceptable perspective. Our sector needs structural and long-term financial support from the government. Without this, our sector, which is so essential in human terms, will not find good health.