According to figures revealed to councillors this week, visitor numbers between April 2020 and March 2021 were 26,276, compared to 381,119 the previous performance year.
Over the past year, the museum has seen a ‘significant fall in income’ from room hire, programme tickets and retail, with Holmeside Coffee also ceasing trade and ending its tenancy with the council.
Under the Government’s current roadmap out of lockdown, the museum and winter gardens would not be allowed to open fully any earlier than May 17.
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Despite this, work is going on behind the scenes to develop exhibitions and draw visitors in once again – with negotiations also taking place to secure a new tenant for the cafe.
As the venue looks to bounce back from Covid-19, council chiefs have said that engaging a digital audience is more important than ever.
“Sunderland Culture and ourselves moved quite quickly into a digital offer,” said Victoria French, Sunderland City Council’s assistant director of culture and events.
“We had in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 huge success with regards to numbers accessing the digital programme.
“It’s not quite the same as being able to visit an exhibition in real-life but certainly what we have found is we have reached a new audience, as well as some of our existing audience.
“So the hope and the plan is, that we will engage that new audience to actually return to the facilities and the venues when they can.”
The culture boss was speaking at ameeting of the council’s Economic Prosperity Scrutiny Committee, which was held via videolink and broadcast on YouTube.
Councillors heard that museum teams had already developed one-way systems and adaptations to the venue to allow visitors to return safely.
The venue also has access to Arts Council England recovery funding to help offset lost income.
Looking forward, there will be continued online access to exhibitions and the museum’s online shop, alongside planning for future “nationally acclaimed programmes.”
Learning resource packs will continue to be distributed to families and school children.
While the museum is closed, improvement works are planned for the exhibition gallery including upgrading the cooling system.
Sunderland Culture is currently developing a new Covid-safe exhibition programme while the Easter programme is expected to be held digitally.
And for the summer programme, council chiefs hope to run the digital offer in parallel with the ‘real-life’ offer.
While welcoming the plans, Ms French admitted that getting visitor numbers back to pre-Covid levels will “take some time.”
“Even though everyone has got their fingers crossed that we will be open […] we won’t bounce back to the numbers of people that we have had in the venues straight away,” she said.
“It will take some time so it’s important that we have an online activity programme in the summer holidays as well.”
Following the meeting, it was announced that the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens shop will reopen on Monday, April 12.
However, the rest of the building will remain closed to the public until further notice in line with Government guidance.
For more information on the museum’s exhibitions, visit: https://sunderlandculture.org.uk/our-venues/sunderland-museum-winter-gardens
The museum’s online shop can also be found here: sunderlandculture.org.uk/our-venues/sunderland-museum-winter-gardens/sunderland-museum-winter-gardens-online-shop