National Gallery

How the National Gallery went ‘digital-only’ during the pandemic and what reopening could look like for the arts

By Kate Iddon 8 July 2021 4 minute read

As the UK looks ahead to a further easing of Covid-19 restrictions this summer, the public arts sector may soon be able to welcome large numbers of visitors for the first time since March 2020. This guest blog by Kate Iddon, Corporate Development Manager at the National Gallery, details how the gallery has functioned throughout the pandemic and what learnings and innovations they will take with them into the post-pandemic world.

In times of crisis, national museums have a crucial role to play. The last year has been unlike any other for the National Gallery, as we faced the dual challenge of adapting to the national lockdowns and upholding our position as a museum for the nation in unprecedented circumstances.

The National Gallery closed its doors to the public initially from 18 March to 17 July in 2020 and again during the subsequent periods of lockdown from November last year. Adapting rapidly and imaginatively to the new circumstances, we remained open to all online.

The response to the restrictions

From the outset of our closure, we relentlessly pursued digital ways to reach our audiences. We tripled the level of digital content produced and continued to create innovative, fresh digital outputs that could be produced remotely and resonate with different audiences during lockdown. Curators’ talks, a series on restoration, a mindfulness series and online schools’ and family events brought the nation’s gallery into the nation’s homes and provided access to great art for people in the UK and around the world.

We succeeded in rescheduling our landmark exhibitions, Titian: Love, Desire, Death and Artemisia—from the spring season to later in the year—to significant acclaim in the media. Accompanying these exhibitions, we introduced greater digital exhibition programming, releasing on demand documentary films and offering virtual tours. Due to the sheer amount of digital content that we were producing, we really were carving new paths for exhibitions at the National Gallery. We saw this period of the ‘digital-only’ National Gallery as one of profound importance, shaping the future of museums.

Expectations over the past year have had to change radically as a result of the pandemic. Naturally, we saw a decrease in on site audiences as a result of our closure; as well as once we reopened, due to social distancing requirements, the steep decline in international and domestic tourism, and due to visitors’ initial reluctance to use public transport. For comparison, in 2019 the National Gallery received over 6 million on site visitors and on an average day in August we welcomed approximately 19,000 visitors per day. In 2020, the National Gallery received 1.2 million visitors and in August we welcomed an average of 1,500 visitors per day.

Like many of our fellow cultural institutions across the UK, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on our income and our financial risk. The National Gallery’s largest source of income is government grant-in-aid, which in recent years has reduced from over 80% of our income to almost 50%. The National Gallery therefore now depends on self-generated income from fundraising and commercial activities for half its revenue—income streams that have been significantly hit by the repercussions of the global pandemic.

There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to our online work, indicated by the engagement statistics and feedback from participants, for example our website traffic grew by 10% this year. Plus, visitor satisfaction levels grew by 15%, to record levels, as we remodeled our visitor experience in line with covid constraints. We also had a record year of membership income and doubled our YouTube and Instagram audiences. The National Gallery now serves a digital audience of over 10 million people every year.

Building on our successes

The challenges of covid, and our response to it, have enabled us to think deeply about the National Gallery’s future. As the first national museum to reopen after the initial lockdown in 2020, we hope that our response to the pandemic has been an inspiration to other cultural institutions in the same position. However, we, like others, foresee that the pandemic will continue to have a major financial impact in the year ahead and we rely on the recovery of the tourism industry.

Our visitors are eagerly returning to site, where restrictions allow, and we look forward to welcoming greater numbers as London reopens over the summer. The National Gallery will, however, remain accessible online through an ongoing, diverse programme of digital content and we will continue to bring the nation’s collection of art to as wide an audience as possible.

The arts sector may soon be able to welcome large numbers of visitors for the first time since March 2020. Here, @NationalGallery set out how they went 'digital-only' during the pandemic and what the future holds for the arts: Click To Tweet


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