Authors: Lois Stonock & Charles Tims
Published in the Fabian Review, Side by Side, vol 128, no. 1
There was much celebrating when last year’s spending review unexpectedly spared the Arts Council a further round of difficult cuts. While this was undoubtedly great news for many of our iconic national institutions and big museums, it was considerably less promising for the 397 museums across England that are funded by local authorities.
Direct grants to local government had already fallen by 27 per cent in real terms since the start of 2015 and the spending review announced the phasing out of the £18bn central government grant to councils by 2020. The Local Government Association (LGA) claims this will create an annual £4.1bn funding gap for local authorities by the end of the decade, although the government hopes they can offset this by allowing councils to keep all their business rates receipts and raising council tax. Either way, it looks bad for museums, as councils have no statutory obligation to support them.
A few days before the spending review, Lancashire county council announced plans to close five museums by 1 April this year. A month later Derby council began consulting on plans which could see the vast majority of local authority funding removed from the city’s museums by 2020. Councils have also proposed cuts and reduced opening times for museums in Kirklees, Nottinghamshire and Shrewsbury. In early February, Bede’s World in Jarrow closed for good.
Sir Merrick Cockell, chair of the LGA, says that these cuts force us to ‘address what are probably the most important political questions for a generation – what should public services in post-austerity Britain look like‘.
Our local museums can survive in this tough new terrain – but only if they work with communities to develop new operational models and new types of museum that work for their particular place.
One option is to reduce opening hours. Understanding what your community wants and when they want it is paramount. In 2012 Kirklees council in West Yorkshire proposed changes to its museum opening hours based on being open more during peak periods and closing for three months over winter. Many cultural attractions and historic buildings can get by on only being open a few days a week. In this digital age with its emphasis on pop-ups, meet-ups, festivals and so on, perhaps museums simply don’t need to be open as much.
The cuts are also encouraging museums to work together. Battersea Arts Centre has recently taken on the running of the local Wandsworth Museum; the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums manage 11 museums in north-east England. Consolidating management structures allow for more efficient management and a sharing of resources across sites. Having a consolidated management can also make more room for volunteer provision, bringing expertise and leadership when required, but otherwise allowing the volunteers to run the day to day.
Volunteering is on the rise. While museums are already reliant on the support of volunteers to both initiate and run projects, the 2013 the Museums Association’s Cuts Survey showed a 47 per cent increase in the number of volunteers and interns while showing a 37 per cent increase in staff cuts over the year. Local authority museums have significantly fewer volunteers than those run independently – especially those operated as charitable trusts. As museums start to feel the impact of the cuts it will pave the way for further job losses and more volunteers.
We are also seeing the emergence of ‘helpful museums’, where museums work more closely with their local authorities and try to find more ways to align themselves with council priorities. For example, according to Arts Council England, there are almost 500 museums across the UK working on health related issues, 80 per cent of which work on dementia.
Health is not the only area in which museums play an important role. In Derby, the new Silk Mill museum dedicated to ‘making’, has engaged the community in every aspect of its renovation. The museum aims to play a civic role, working and responding creatively to issues that affect those who live in the city and visit the museum. In a time of crisis for museums in Derby, moving towards the community for energy and ideas seems like a smart move. Not just because it is the best way museums can serve their communities, but also because it is surely the best route to what the cultural commentator John Holden calls ‘the kind of solid public support that makes cuts politically dangerous or, even better, unthinkable‘.
In 2020 our museums won’t be what they are today. We could have significantly fewer but for those that will remain, a new way of operating focussed on community input, action and funding will be of growing importance. This might mean being minimal in management, charging sometimes, being savvier with volunteers or making museums indispensable in the delivery of local health and educational outcomes. If museums are to survive answers will need to come from local communities who appreciate and understand the value of the collections, especially where local authorities are struggling for solutions and money.