UK museums’ rising energy costs could hamper ‘warm banks’ plan | Museums

Museums have said they will struggle to provide “warm banks” planned for people priced out of heating their homes, because their own soaring bills threaten opening restrictions and closures this winter.

The Museums Association said on Tuesday that the cost of living crisis risked being a bigger blow to the sector than the pandemic, with many museum directors in despair about how to pay for energy bill increases of up to 500%.

Last week Ofgem confirmed that the average annual household fuel bill would climb by 80% to £3,549 from October, and some analysts say bills could reach £7,600 by next year.

Several areas including Birmingham, Ipswich, Gateshead and at least nine Scottish councils are exploring how to provide warm refuges in museums and other public buildings for people seeking shelter this winter.

But the Museums Association, which represents more than 1,800 UK institutions, said many premises may have to close or restrict opening hours because their uncapped bills would rise by between 200% and 500%.

Its director, Sharon Heal, said: “Museums can only be safe warm spaces if we have sustainable funding. We are getting concerned calls almost every day from institutions saying their anticipated energy bills are five times what they were last year. They say: ‘This is the dealbreaker for us. This is worse than Covid.’ And these are big, significant, city-wide institutions.

“They are in absolute despair. I have never seen anything like it in the sector – museum directors and chief execs saying: ‘We don’t know how we’re going to pay the bills this winter.’”

Museums have been struggling to recover from a fall in revenues during the pandemic.

Next week the association plans to plead with the new prime minister for extra funding to keep museums open so they can help keep vulnerable people warm.

Heal said: “We will be making a very strong case to the new prime minister that we need investment in museums across the UK if we’re going to be able to keep them open as warm, safe spaces for the public over the course of this winter.

“Our message to ministers is that if you recognise that we’re in an energy crisis and you want to support museums to alleviate that by providing those warm, safe spaces, there has to extra funding. It’s an investment in the safety of our communities.”

She added: “The difference really between Covid and the cost of living crisis is that there’s been no government recognition or help so far. During Covid we had the furlough scheme and the cultural recovery fund, both of which stopped museums having to close down their operations entirely.

“At the moment there’s nothing on the table to support museums through this crisis. Museum can’t be expected to keep their doors open if they’re having a 500% increase in their energy costs. It such a big part of their operating cost.”

If there was no help, Heal said, “the consequences could be really severe. Big city museums services will have to close either for a number of days per week to save on energy costs, or close whole sites.”

Last week the Lowry in Salford said it was facing a tripling in energy bills to almost £1m – substantially more than its annual Arts Council funding. Managers at the arts complex – the most visited attraction in the north-west – are confident it can pay the bills. But less popular attractions face a more uncertain future.

“These are scary times,” said Carolyn Ayers, the estates and conservation manager at the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust in south London, which is facing a fuel bill increase of almost 400%. “The uncertainty means we are having to revisit and adapt plans every month,” she told the Museums Journal.

Heal said museums were keen to help provide the public with warm spaces this winter, but only if they could afford it. “For example, National Museums Liverpool have said it will open its doors for the people of Liverpool and beyond to come in the winter to use warm spaces. But they can only do that if they’ve got a sustainable funding model and they can pay their energy bills.”

She claimed museums were facing a “double whammy” of huge energy costs due to “often leaky historic buildings that don’t retain energy well” and the need for new pay settlements for museum staff to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

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