Speaking recently at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, V&A director Tristram Hunt bemoaned the fact that, since 2010, government funding for the museum had fallen by 30%, adding that both national and regional museums are working in a tough financial climate. His comments came just days after the publication of the UK government’s Museums Action Plan, yet Hunt wasn’t much interested in that – instead he called for a ‘hotel tax’ to support cultural infrastructure and plug the funding gap, and defended rising ticket costs. With museums suffering cuts at local level due to cash-strapped councils, and nationally because of real-term funding reductions from central government, these are undoubtedly difficult times for the sector. Museums are also being stretched by increasing demands to fulfil multiple roles, from education to social cohesion to the small matter of looking after collections. In this challenging environment, does the Museums Action Plan provide the kind of thinking the sector needs?
For Ian Blatchford, director and chief executive of the Science Museum Group (SMG) and chair of the National Museum Directors’s Council, the answer is mostly ‘no’. He told me that while it is ‘a useful contribution to the efficiency of the museum landscape’, it is also ‘miles away from addressing the urgent needs of the national and regional museums’. He is in a good position to survey the England-wide situation. As well as London’s Science Museum – one of 15 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) sponsored national museums – SMG oversees the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Railway Museum in York, and Locomotion in Shildon, County Durham.
The action plan is a response to the independent Mendoza Review of museums in England commissioned by the DCMS. Published in November 2017, the review’s key recommendation was that the DCMS and its arms-length bodies such as Arts Council England (ACE) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), should work more closely to get the most out of state funding – and that as part of this, the DCMS, ACE and HLF should create the action plan. Last month saw ACE and the HLF sign a memorandum of understanding pledging to develop a joint strategy. The plan itself includes a commitment to an annual meeting for government departments and arms-length bodies to discuss spending and strategic goals for museums; the gathering of data on the national situation for museums; and the creation of a ‘robust evidence base’ on how public funding is used in the sector, ahead of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2019. The DCMS has also committed to reviewing and updating the plan annually.
All of which, says Museums Association (MA) director Sharon Neal, is good as far as it goes – but much more is needed. ‘What the Mendoza Review and the Action Plan lack is a strategic vision for the future of museums in England,’ says Neal. ‘We need big picture thinking to work out how museums are going to create a sustainable future. The Museums Association view is that we need to create socially engaged museums at the heart of their communities and that only by working with the public and thinking about the lasting impact that museums can have will we be able to do that.’
Neal touches on a key point which the Museums Action Plan does not address – what are museums really for in a 21st-century, multicultural, connected Britain? Increasingly, the museum’s role as a social and cultural meeting point is being foregrounded, as public funding drains away from so many areas of social welfare. Yet with central and local government funding for museums also continuing to decline, the issue of investment – of government putting its money where its mouth is – is impossible to ignore. The Mendoza Review recognized that there had been a real-terms drop in central government funding over the 2007–17 period, but on its publication, it was accused of complacency by some in the sector for not expressing strong concerns about the impact of this funding decline.
It’s a criticism that can also be levelled at the Museums Action Plan which talks only about efficiency and the benefits of collaboration rather than addressing the sector’s financial needs. In contrast to the Mendoza Review’s almost sanguine approach to the issue, Art Fund and Wolfson Foundation’s Why Collect? report, written by the historian and president of the British Academy Sir David Cannadine and published in February 2018, expressed alarm and dismay about the current situation, and highlighted a crisis in terms of collections and the acquisition of works. On its publication, Cannadine stated: ‘If ever there was a time to increase investment in museum curators and their collections, then that time is now.’ Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar added that Cannadine’s ‘concerns over the lack of public investment in the growth and care of our nation’s collections, and in the people responsible for them, should be heeded’.
Speaking now, Deuchar reiterates this point. ‘We welcome the Museum Action Plan’s optimism, and helpful mapping of DCMS’s collaborations and commitments across a wide spectrum,’ he told me. ‘However, it does not mention the elephant in the room – the government’s severe cuts to local authority spending, which have substantially diminished public museum budgets regionally. As highlighted in Why Collect?, public spending on museums and galleries in England declined by 13 percent from GBP£829m in 2007 to GBP£720m in 2017, and the reduction has been greatest where funding is provided by local authorities.’
Deuchar adds that ‘to a background of museum redundancies and threatened closures, national cultural leadership will require a visionary policy shift, with the critical issue of core funding placed at centre stage rather than in the wings.’ It’s a view that Blatchford echoes, stressing that the need for more government money simply cannot be pushed aside. He concludes: ‘At a time when cultural power abroad, and social inclusion at home, are more vital than ever, it is essential that the next government spending round puts new money into this amazing sector. It is struggling and yet with some hard cash it will thrive.’
There is a lot that ‘hard cash’ could be spent on in what the Museum Association’s director describes as an ‘overstretched and under resourced sector’. And while a high-profile national museum director like Hunt attracts headlines, it is at a local level where the signs of a crumbling infrastructure can be most clearly seen – and where the museum’s social and cultural impact is often most keenly felt.
Main image: Lion from throne room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 6th century BC, from Babylon, Iraq, The British Museum, London, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons