Announcing First Full Scale Virtual Museum

The film displayed on our Homepage explains the rationale for Ben Uri, and perhaps other small institutions making up more than half of the UK museum sector, to transform and embrace a digital future as their primary engagement vehicle supported by a physical presence rather than the reverse. The film and a more detailed reflection is available on the home page of benuri.org — the First Full Scale Virtual Museum and Research Centre.

Two years ago in October 2018, Ben Uri published its future Sustainability and Public Benefit Strategy, which made seismic changes to the operating model of this small but purposeful charitable company and museum which was founded in Whitechapel in 1915. Key to the delivery was the ethical and curatorial led deaccessioning to redefine the collection to reflect the Ben Uri Research Unit on the Jewish and immigrant contribution to British visual culture since 1900 and to raise some £2m to save and secure the future of the institution, and its distinctive public benefit generating capacity. The sales were of non-fettered works that were rarely, if ever, exhibited and provided no positive public benefit. The trustees and management, after long and careful consideration and expert charity law legal advice, addressed the ongoing financial struggles decisively and concluded the strategy to be in the best interests and future sustainability of the charity.

The sales were designed to secure the future and fund the transition into a full scale virtual museum as our permanent, principal engagement model, supported by our current small gallery and art reference library. Two years ago, as now, this juxtaposition turned the traditional museum model on its head in recognition of the reality of the then, current and future, rather than the sector's apparent one-size-fits-all model. Only £1m of the target was raised in November and December 2018 at Sotheby's, where 10 out of 24 works sold.

Ben Uri has not required any emergency bailout pre-Covid-19 or any emergency public funding since, no staff furloughed or made redundant and has increased its professional staff numbers and will continue to recruit through 2021 to deliver its strategic public benefit programmes and charity objects.

Chair and architect of the futuristic strategy, David Glasser, said, “In September this year we soft-launched benuri.org and in the first 3 months the engagement numbers have exceeded all budgets and expectations. The traditional view of 'there is nothing to replace the physical experience' (of standing in front of an artwork in Ben Uri's case) totally misunderstands and misjudges today's, never mind tomorrow's, world in which we live”.

We have exchanged the restrictions of our concrete walls, poor location, daytime opening hours when people are either at work or with their families, and the continuous challenge of competing with the Nationals only a few miles away in central London. Making the quantum shift to, and investment in, the virtual arena has given us unrestricted capacity for content and unlimited possibilities. Digital global engagement comes with crucially important benefits of reduced running costs and 24/7 accessibility. In just 3 months, with no fanfare, we are generating 35 times as many positive digital engagements than visitors to the gallery last year. In awareness terms, we will generate over 2 million views in our first year, from which we will build engagement.

Digital — 2nd best ? No Way — it's best for Ben Uri, and maybe for many more similar sized institutions, given that the reality of the museum sector in this country is not as presented. 56% of the UK museum sector is classified as 'small' with visitor numbers up to 10,000 per annum according to the invaluable 'Mapping Museums Project' published in March 2020. Given that 45% of museums do not measure and could not provide visitor numbers we estimate the average number of this majority segment is more like 5,000 visitors per annum — 100 a week or less than 15 a day. The numbers are important and revealing, as the reality is greatly different to the public profile regularly presented. The National museum sector itself generates 40% of the total UK visitor numbers (60M) leaving the remaining 3200 museums generating 60% (85M). The 'rest'/60% average 26,000 visitors a year — 500 a week or some 70 a day. These three sets of statistics demonstrate that our museum sector, the lifeblood of our towns and cities, is somewhat difficult to sustain.

In addition to being able to offer and engage across all the extensive museum programming online, benuri.org also features the museum's flow of new acquisitions reflecting the Jewish and immigrant contribution to British art since 1900. This reinvestment of funds raised at Sotheby's include pre-eminent examples by Schwitters, Ehrlich, Howson and last week by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, all placed in the museum's ring-fenced trust.

The platform also importantly features the work of our two principal and distinctive public benefit generating initiatives, both of which have been central to our purpose for a decade and more.

The Ben Uri Research Unit for the study and digital recording of the Jewish and immigrant contribution to British visual culture since 1900.
The Ben Uri Arts and Health Institute addressing and researching the role and construction of art interventions, featuring the museum's collection, for the growing demographics of older people living in social isolation and or with dementia.

The future strategy to further develop benuri.org is extensive and pioneering.'

David Glasser is preparing a comprehensive study and operational proposals on the capacity of the small, if not the medium, museum sector representing 56% and 27% respectively (in total some 2700 museums) in the UK. The report addresses museum definition(s), classification, financial sustainability, collecting, collection and segmentation, storage, governance and the correct legal hierarchy, ring-fence trusts, the Charity Commission and museum establishment's conflicting positions and presentations on de-accessioning, public benefit return on assets employed, breach of trust, ethical de-accessioning road map, purpose, public benefit options, and the transformative digital opportunities for local and global educational engagement. This report is due to be published in April 2021.

For further details, please contact David Glasser at davidg@benuri.org