Against the backdrop of the ensuing culture war over whether vaccination passes are necessary to protect public health or the illiberal actions of a despotic state, a niche but important argument has been made in favour of allowing the public to visit museums, irrespective of their vaccination status. These ideas have influenced plenty of powerful figures from across the globe, like the former director of the Sansevero Chapel Museum, Fabrizio Masucci, who resigned his position last year, on the basis that “equal access to art and culture (is) a right of all”. Yet, however unjust restrictions can seem, I would argue to avoid further restrictions in the future, they are, unfortunately, essential.
Undeniably, the sorts of objects held in museums are far less readily accessible than the likes of film or literature – you have to experience them by visiting collections and exhibitions in person. Restricting access to these venues, then, will have ramifications for the accessibility of art and artefacts. Yet it is important to remember that, while it is regrettable people will be exiled from this world of culture, in nearly every case, their loss is self-imposed.
In recent weeks, it has been more abundantly clear than ever that vaccination offers effective protection against coronavirus in all its various forms – for instance, it can reduce the risk of hospitalisation from the Omicron variant by more than 90%. Meanwhile, if the National Health Service is ever to treat the six million people backlogged on its waiting list, these hospitalisations will need to be kept to an absolute minimum. If different variants of coronavirus in the future are inevitable, it is surely a basic social responsibility to get vaccinated, or accept curbed freedoms, so that hospitals can start treating patients suffering from other life-threatening diseases without forcing the rest of the country into lockdown again.
Nevertheless, others have made a different point – questioning how high the risk of transmission at museums actually is. A headline-making study conducted last year by the Berlin Institute of Technology, for example, claimed museums were safer than the likes of supermarkets and offices, which have largely remained open for all. Naturally, it is unlikely unvaccinated people will not be allowed to continue to use supermarkets, given they are considered essential retail stores, so arguably, by deduction, they should be allowed to visit museums too.
Yet even with mask-wearing enforced, the rate of infection remains steady at 0.5, even in this relatively optimistic forecast, opening up yet another channel through which unvaccinated individuals could be hospitalised by the Omicron variant. Therefore, while the threat of infection remains fairly low, keeping museums open for the unvaccinated would ultimately only disincentivise sceptics to get a jab that can essentially take this activity from low risk to risk-free.
The question of whether museums are of public importance, however, represents an entirely different matter. The United Kingdom’s national museum directors’ council recently argued restrictions were “at odds” with their “public mission”, arguing that the educative function these venues served constituted something essential to the public’s well-being. Industry leaders undeniably have a vested interest in museums staying open for all, but there can be no denying museums, particularly in the UK, serve a valuable function by democratising art and knowledge for all.
However, it is very hard to suggest they are essential to everyday life, considering that the vast majority of the public only make occasional visits to these sites, meaning much of their importance is symbolic, a bit like allowing the public to watch debates in parliament unfold. If it is the symbolic that constitutes most of what is at stake, I would suggest the risk-reward ratio remains a major sticking point.
If the British public is to learn to live with coronavirus without regular lockdowns, vaccine uptake, especially of booster jabs will be essential. Neglecting other public duties – by not paying tax or exhibiting anti-social behaviour – has always had ramifications, so it would be entirely wrong for members of the public to not expect similar penalties in this instance. The concerns over penalising people for not getting a vaccine that is the key to avoiding backlogging the NHS even further, or locking down society again, would seem overblown and semantic. Therefore, though such measures may seem an infringement on public liberties, if they offer the nation a route out of lockdown for good, they will be worth the political unease which will naturally lie beneath these critically important decisions.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng
Image Credit: Psyxjaw via Flickr