(28 Jul 2020) LEAD IN:
The Natural History Museum will reopen next week after its months-long coronavirus closure.
Conservation workers are giving some of the museum's biggest skeleton a dusting down before the public lay eyes on them again.
There's a buzz of activity around Hope the blue whale.
The 25.2 metre skeleton hangs from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum, the most spectacular attraction within its walls.
Few have seen her since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic forced the UK's museums to shut their doors.
But with government restrictions easing, preparations are underway to welcome visitors once again.
And that means conservation workers are cleaning the exhibits in the countdown to reopening.
These months of lockdown have given staff an unusual experience.
"Often when we clean in the galleries, we have to do that early hours of the morning or in the late in the evening because the public are usually in the space. So for us, it's been an amazing opportunity to come in during the day, in daylight hours and to actually do this cleaning," says Lorraine Cornish, Head of Conservation.
Hope swam in the world's oceans in the 19th century before beaching on the shore near Wexford in Ireland.
An enterprising local man sold her skeleton to the museum for £250.
While she was on display in the museum for decades, it wasn't until 2017 that she was suspended from the ceiling of the Hintze Hall, becoming an iconic sight for visitors.
Cleaning and maintaining her massive frame is no small job.
"So we have a team of usually four people. It takes three days because not only are we cleaning her, but we're checking her condition. So we're doing a bit like a medical check. Any cracks opening up, what's the surface like. So we take photographs and we record her condition," explains Cornish.
The museum will reopen on August 5 (2020).
But with COVID-19 cases far from over in the UK, visitors can expect some drastic changes.
"We are going to be limiting numbers for social distancing reasons so people will have to book online to get a timed ticket in advance of their visit. So that's the first major change. Of course, we have social distancing measures throughout cleaning regimes, throughout," says Sir Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum.
Dixon expects the allocated time slots to be in high demand as museum goers return to learn about the world's creatures and plant life.
And he sees a silver lining to the limited visits on offer.
"Normally, we would average between 14 and 15,000 visitors a day throughout the year, and that will vary from maybe seven or 8,000 on a quiet day to 28,000 on a very, very busy day, busiest day ever. But we're going to be limiting to 2,800 people per day. So about 20 percent of the normal average," he says.
"But of course, the benefit for the visitor is they're going to get an unparalleled experience of seeing our collection. Never before will they have be able to visit with so few other people around so they'll have fantastic views of everything."
The Natural History Museum receives funding from the UK government, but also generates around half its income from a range of commercial activities.
With many of those activities halted by the pandemic, it is expecting additional financial support from a government rescue package for the cultural sector.
Around half its staff were furloughed, but they have now started returning to work and the museum expects all to be back in by late September to early October.
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