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By Ian Blatchford on

An uncomfortable milestone

One month on since the closure of our museums due to the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Executive Sir Ian Blatchford reflects on the challenges facing us all and how the Group has adapted to its new (although temporary) virtual reality.

A month has now passed since visitors wandered through any of our five museums. It is an uncomfortable milestone.

Like me, I am sure that you are losing a normal sense of time and are ever more irritated with blogs by celebrities about their isolation experiences. Times may be confusing, but we all do now have a vivid sense of the confines of the spaces we live in.

Our museums still have a life even without open buildings because of the ideas bubbling away in our collection and our learning expertise.

Much of our vast collection is available digitally and, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee – whose NeXT computer on which he designed the World Wide Web at CERN in 1990 is awaiting visitors to the Science Museum – audiences are able to enjoy the cultural connection of exploring our collection from home.

March saw the highest ever number of visitors to our collection website. Huge numbers of people are also investigating science from their living rooms through the informal learning resources and games we have developed.

NeXT computer, used by Tim Berners-Lee to design the World Wide Web, at CERN, 1990.

In my many discussions with other major museums, two things have been in sharper focus: how much online content needs thoughtful curation; how quality certainly matters more than quantity.

As we ignite the curiosity of tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, the coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating the vital importance of scientific endeavour today: from medical doctors innovating in the treatment of COVID-19 cases, to mathematical biologists modelling the spread of the virus, and research technicians sequencing the DNA of the coronavirus to aid vaccine development.

The awesome challenge of this pandemic reminds us too of the importance of understanding the world around us and our impact on that world.

As we are forced to confront the threat of viral infection, we should not forget the growing global problem of antibiotic resistance, explored in our Superbugs exhibition, which was touring India and China when the coronavirus struck.

And while coronavirus will undoubtedly define this year and next, climate change remains the defining issue for the 21st century.

Our museums have a vital role to play in leading public engagement around all of these global threats and exploring the work of the scientists and innovators seeking solutions to the challenges we face.

In the context of coronavirus, that means we are now actively – but with great sensitivity – researching the stories and identifying the objects that will help us to explore the medical and scientific responses to the outbreak and to chronicle its wider impacts on our society and culture.

This ranges from innovations in respiratory equipment and research into a COVID-19 vaccine to ephemera including public health posters and shop signage. It reminds us that the virus is a cultural phenomenon as well as health emergency.

A poster about Measles vaccination, one of 800 health education posters produced for the Central Council for Health Education (1927-69), Health Education Council (1969-87) and Health Education Authority (1987-2000). Part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

As our curators begin this important work with seriousness and within strict ethical guidelines, other colleagues are playing their own part in our response to this unprecedented situation.

Some have found ways to support the extraordinary work of health professionals treating those with COVID-19, either by volunteering themselves or by identifying items that could be put to use in care settings.

Our teams working at the Blythe House object store organised thousands of protective gloves that were donated to the London Ambulance Service (together with donations from the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum), while York Hospital was the beneficiary of face masks from the National Railway Museum.

The Science and Industry Museum’s stocks of latex gloves and paper suits were sent to Salford Royal Hospital. And 93 kilograms of glycerol and 7 litres of hydrogen peroxide, usually used in experiments by the Science Museum’s Learning team, have gone to Imperial Hospitals Trust to make hand sanitiser for key workers and patients.

In Bradford, the National Science and Media Museum’s Learning team has distributed activity sheets to primary school children, some of whom do not have access to the internet.

Maggie, who works at Blythe House, with the PPE equipment donated to the London Ambulance Service by colleagues from the Science Museum Group, Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum.

As well as engaging families and teachers with our own informal learning resources, our Communications teams have also been sharing other initiatives such as this campaign to encourage schools to donate goggles to support the fight against COVID-19.

As well as saluting what some colleagues are doing, I also want to thank colleagues for staying at home and following the Government guidance. With our museums closed, hundreds of people are unable to do their jobs, roles that they fulfil with skill, passion and pride.

This is an intensely frustrating time, but by staying at home we are both protecting lives and hastening the moment when we will be able to reopen our museums’ doors.

And for me that means more reading, yoga, cooking, finding things in cupboards I thought I had lost, Zooming with friends and relatives, looking at the radiant blossom from my kitchen window; and, through tracking the daily government data on infections and hospital admissions, seeing evidence that our sacrifices are working.