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This has shone a light on the extreme vulnerability of the independent Museum sector

Helen Bonser-Wilton, CEO of Portsmouth's Mary Rose Museum, says the attraction, along with the rest of Britain's independent museums are in "mortal peril" unless the government and heritage organisations act soon.

The museum, run by the Mary Rose Trust, is dedicated to the 16th-century flagship of King Henry VIII, which was sunk during a French invasion and has been preserved by the organisation since 1982. Having been underwater for a number of centuries, the hull of the 500-year-old ship and its artefacts have to be preserved in very specific conditions to prevent deterioration.

"We have an immensely complex environmental system, with collections care, maintenance and repairs taking place 365 days a year," Bonser-Wilton tells Attractions Management.

"I've got core costs of about £2.2m (US$2.7m, €2.5m) even if I can't open a single day in a year. That's the absolute basic once we've cut everything else out. All of those costs continue even though we're closed. We can't stop conserving our collection just because we haven't got money coming in."

Fundraising efforts

Around 90 per cent of the museum's annual income comes from visitor revenue, with the majority of visitors coming between April and August. The museum doesn't expect to be open again until at least September, meaning the majority of its income for the year is essentially lost.

"We're asking for people to donate but also if they prefer to buy a ticket in advance, come and see us when we're open. In terms of cash flow this is for us completely disastrous," says Bonser-Wilton.

As it stands the only support available to the museum comes from Arts Council England (ACE), which launched a £160m (US$191.2m, €176.4m) fund last week to support cultural organisations during COVID-19 outbreak. As an independent museum, however, the Mary Rose Museum can only apply for a grant of up to £35,000 (US$41,800, €38,600).

"When you've got £2.2m to cover, that kind of money doesn't even touch the sides," says Bonser-Wilton. "We're hopeful the National Lottery Heritage Fund will come up with something we can apply for but there's a huge gap there.

"While the government's job retention scheme is really helpful, I've still got eight staff members that I haven't been able to furlough because we still need to look after the collections. If we haven't got revenue coming in, we need to be fundraising. So you've still got the elements of a conservation and heritage organisation that has to carry on."

An urgent call for independent museums

Bonser-Wilton is calling on the government to create a fund that organisations with significant collections can apply for to help them through the current economic period. She has also called for a comprehensive review of how independent museums are funded for the future.

"This has shone a light on the extreme vulnerability of the independent museum sector," she says. "For national museums and museums with government funding, I know that they still have issues but they do have core funding. There are others who are supported by their National Portfolio organisations but it's the independents that literally have no backup.

"It's very difficult working in heritage to build up cash reserves because your collections cost so much to maintain. We need to start a conversation we've been trying to start and are getting nowhere with. We need to ask if we're ok with the fact that the independent museum sector is at risk within two weeks of something going wrong. Is there an alternative funding formula that we can come up with?"

Covering costs

In the coming weeks, the museum will launch a public fundraising appeal, aimed at raising some of the funds needed to support the preservation of its artefacts during its closure.

"We're focusing on the gaps," says Bonser-Wilton. "Over the last two weeks, we've worked out what we can actually get rid of and what our cash flows therefore are. We're now at a position where we can go out and say how much we need to be able to cover our costs for the year. We have a total of 60 staff, with 45 full-time equivalents. We're keeping eight people working.

"At this point, looking at where the cash is, we're in mortal peril. Unless we can actually bridge this enormous gap in cash, then I don't know what we're going to do."

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Helen Bonser-Wilton, CEO of Portsmouth's Mary Rose Museum, says the attraction, along with the rest of Britain's independent museums are in "mortal peril" unless the government and heritage organisations act soon.
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