British museums reopen to “culture-starved” crowds

– “I’m super excited to be back,” Rosie Goode, a hypnotherapist from Tufnell Park, London, told Xinhua while waiting in line at the entrance of the National Gallery on Monday, one day before International Museum Day.

Before the pandemic, she used to visit museums and galleries at least once a month. “They are important for our emotional and mental health,” Goode said, quipping that this might explain why she remains youthful-looking and energetic in her 60s.

After scanning a track-and-trace health code at the gate via an app of the National Health Service on her phone, Goode set foot again in the familiar cultural edifice and made a beeline for her favorite impressionist paintings upstairs.

British museums and galleries have reopened their doors to the public following a lengthy COVID-19-induced closure, and people are enthusiastic to return to their old stamping grounds for much-needed cultural replenishment.

“Art is food for the soul,” Juliet, a retired bookseller who did not provide her last name, told Xinhua as she surrounded herself with the paintings of Rembrandt in satisfaction. “Rembrandt, (Anthony) van Dyck (paintings), I miss them,” she said.

“We’ve been culture and art starved,” said her friend Caroline, a project management consultant who declined to give her last name.

The two friends visited museums and other cultural hubs about once every two weeks, before the pandemic chipped away the key component of their cultural life.

As the third step of the British government’s strategy to eliminate most lockdown measures by June 21, the reopening of museums, galleries, theaters and other entertainment venues on Monday came one month after indoor leisure facilities like gyms and swimming pools were allowed to resume business. For many, this showed a lack of consideration for people’s need for culture.

Apollo, a London-based international art magazine, said in a commentary in February that “the relegation of museums to Step 3 looks like a clear expression of what many who work in the arts have come to suspect of this government: that it sees culture as an afterthought, something easily left on the shelf.”

Juliet and Caroline did not understand such a late date for museums to reopen either. The space of museums and galleries are usually big, and people are wearing the masks all the time and are not allowed to touch anything, they said.

Even though many museums have been “clever” in putting collections online so that people can browse them, it is something really different to see the actual paintings, face to face, Caroline said.

Ivan Belikov and Tamara Evsiukova, a young couple who moved from Russia to live and work in Britain in February last year, only weeks before the lockdown kicked in, were not so critical of how the British government prioritizes different industries.

Resting their feet on the second floor of the British Museum, they told Xinhua that gyms might face a more urgent need to reopen for their survival while some museums and galleries do receive donations.

With the start of the third phase of the lockdown easing, their dream — to visit one of the greatest museums of the world — has come true at last, after COVID-19 disruptions delayed it for more than one year after their arrival.

On the ground floor, Isolda Fabregat Sanz, a visitor services team member, was busy helping people navigate the labyrinthine galleries of the British Museum. Though a far cry from the usual 20,000 daily visitors in the pre-pandemic days, the place was finally humming with life again after all the 4,000 or so tickets in the museum’s time-slot system were snapped up.

“It just feels so great to be back,” she said, even though she was paid nonetheless during the five-month closure period.