Space is a commodity. Cinema, as a cheap-to-enjoy, democratising artform, depends on crowds of people enjoying the same experience. Restaurants work by fitting the maximum number of covers compatible with a pleasant customer experience into their premises. Blockbuster exhibitions generate valuable income for galleries when they attract proper, elbows-out crowds. University lectures offer a convenient way of teaching a large number of students in a single space at once.
Sometimes this makes for a less than pleasant experience. Not everyone wants to be so close to their neighbours in a cafe that they can hear every nuance of their conversation; seeing art can be marred when it becomes a choreographic game, requiring neck-stretching, ducking and side-stepping. Many readers pine for absolute unpeopled silence in a library, and the close-quarters crunch of popcorn or shine of a phone screen in the cinema is a universal irritant.
So the immediate future of many such experiences may seem rather pleasant. Museums and galleries – now allowed to reopen in England and Northern Ireland, and probably in the coming weeks in Scotland and Wales – will be very different places when a timed ticket is booked ahead. There will be one-way routes to be followed and rules to be observed, but one thing there won’t be is crowds. Libraries, too, will be even quieter.
This extra space does not come for free. In education, there was an odd interval before what might have been obvious from the start was generally grasped – that socially distanced, in-person schooling, in the absence of magical amounts of extra space, can usually be realised only by devoting less contact time to pupils. Some universities are talking of expanding working hours for already hard-pressed staff to accommodate the desire for face-to-face teaching. Restaurants that lack the room to spread their tables will be faced with the decision to raise their prices or close. Even for those museums and galleries that do not charge entry fees, there will be a loss of income from shops, bars and restaurants as visitor numbers drop. That will mean less money to spend on programmes, collections and staff.
It may not all be bad. There is potential for some of this new space deficit to be offset by digital contact – at least in education, entertainment and museums. For British cultural organisations digital resources are relatively untapped, and disruptions to distribution models may offer new creative opportunities for film-makers. Museums and galleries, in the absence of overseas tourists, will have the chance to serve their local audiences with more attention. But the least desirable consequence of all this would be a situation in which some experiences are available only to those willing and able to plan and pay for solitary splendour – while others make do with what becomes a secondary digital offer. The worst-case scenario is that the premium on space opens up damaging new forms of inequality.