The National Gallery has announced it will be the first of the UK’s big museums to reopen – but warned of concerns about its future.
The almost 200-year-old institution said it predicted “difficulties ahead”, with fewer visitors than before the coronavirus pandemic.
The National Gallery will be up and running, after 111 days of closure, on July 8, while the Royal Academy Of Arts and Tate will follow later next month.
All visits to the National Gallery must be booked online and in advance.
And instead of meandering through the vast rooms of the world-famous institution in Trafalgar Square, visitors will follow “art routes”.
National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi said it was “symbolic” to be the “first among the national museums” and he was looking forward to returning the “nation’s pictures… to the nation”.
But he predicted difficulties “further ahead”.
“This crisis has affected us in many ways,” he said in an online press conference. “Our finances have also been quite seriously affected.
“We’ve had more than three months of closure, which has meant that no income has been coming in.”
The gallery generates much of its income from exhibition tickets, its shops, restaurants and event hire.
“The model that we operate under requires us to have large numbers of visitors,” he said.
“And so we are in difficulty and all other museums are in difficulty too.
“I have to stress it’s not just difficulty for this year – the year of the pandemic itself – but looking ahead, particularly as visitor numbers drop I imagine quite dramatically – we will be in difficulties further ahead”.
It has been talking to the Government “about what our needs are… not only about now but… about long term sustainability.”
Mr Finaldi added: “We look forward to hearing from the Government very soon.”
Tate plans to reopen all four of its galleries – Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives – later in the month, on July 27.
Others to announce reopening dates include the Ashmolean Museum, Nottingham Contemporary, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, The Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, Chisenhale Gallery, The Barbican, Royal Academy of Arts, Whitechapel Gallery and Serpentine Galleries.
There will be a separate entrance and exit at the National Gallery and two-metre social distancing measures in place throughout, and visitors are recommended to wear a face covering.
An “enhanced cleaning regime will be in operation” and “higher efficiency filters in the air-conditioning system” have been installed, increasing the flow of fresh air.
Mr Finaldi said “it will be pleasant to have the galleries to yourselves” as fewer visitors than usual attend “initially”.
Asked if the quieter experience could change the way the museum operated in the long-term, he said it wanted things to get back to normal.
“We’ve all had the experience of being in an exhibition or museum where there are too many people – it’s difficult to see a work of art, it’s noisy, you don’t have that space for contemplation,” he said.
But he added: “Personally I’d quite like to go back, when the time is right, to that normal regime that we had where people come, linger, spend as long as they want in a particular room, in front of a particular work… but that may take a while to come.”
He said he would be “very concerned” if free entry “came under threat”.
“I guess this is one of the things that the Government will have to bear in mind when it looks at how it supports the sector,” he said. “But I do think that free entry is absolutely fundamental for us.”
Many smaller museums will be “in very great difficulty,” he added, saying: “This is a time… to value our cultural institutions for the wellbeing of the country.”
Booking in advance is necessary to help “manage the number of people in the gallery, limit queueing and reduce contact”, the Gallery said.
Tate also said that all visitors, including members, must book a timed ticket online beforehand.
Tate Modern will reopen with its Andy Warhol show and Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission Fons Americanus, a 13-metre-high fountain and “counter-memorial” exploring the interconnected histories of Africa, the US and Europe.
Tate director Maria Balshaw said: “Art and culture play vital roles in our lives, and many of us have been craving that irreplaceable feeling of being face-to-face with a great work of art.”
The Royal Academy Of Art’s secretary and chief executive Axel Ruger said: “It will be an opportunity for a quieter, more contemplative experience in the galleries.”
The exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death will reopen at the National Gallery after it previously closed just three days into its run, while Royal Academy of Art visitors can see its Picasso And Paper exhibition.
Last week, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that museums and galleries in England can welcome visitors from July 4.
National Gallery visits can be booked at www.nationalgallery.org.uk