Austerity cuts imposed by central government have caused a “crisis” in England’s cultural sector outside London with regional museums increasingly opening part-time and cutting staff.
Many cash-strapped local authorities choose to fund social care and other life-or-death services instead of their arts and cultural offerings, “hollowing out the sector”, the Museums Association has said.
Some 14% of local authority museums and 19% of independent former local authority institutions have reduced their opening hours in the past year, while 61% of local authority museums charge admission to cover their shortfall, according to the Museums Association’s 2018 report.
Overall, English council spending on culture has fallen by almost £400m over the last eight years and in shire councils culture budgets have fallen by 33%, according to the latest County Councils Network spending review.
Just two of the 16 English cultural institutions funded by central government are based outside London (the Royal Armouries in Leeds and the National Museums Liverpool), though some, such as Tate and Science Museum Group, have non-London outposts. This creates a vast disparity between London’s cultural offering and the rest of the country, critics warn.
Research by the Guardian found that Leicester council was planning to remove all four curators at its museums in light of a £320,000 cut in its arts budget, and in January Worcestershire county council cut the budget for its archaeology and archive service by 60%.
Stockport’s Hat Works museum can also no longer afford to turn on its felting machines because of proposed savings of £16m in the council’s budget, while in 2016 five museums operated by Lancashire council closed. Three have reopened to the general public in the past year on weekends only, with the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster now staffed entirely by volunteers.
London, meanwhile, gets the most funding from local authorities, the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund, despite having the third lowest number of museums of the country’s regions. It also accounts for 66% of all private investment in museums, according to Arts Council England.
“Regional museums are facing a cliff edge if there are more cuts,” said Tony Butler, the director of Derby Museums trust. Butler’s three east Midlands museums have all been hit by a 40% drop in funding from Derby city council since 2013, resulting in reduced opening hours, reduced yearly exhibitions and fewer staff.
While more than half of UK adults go to a museum at least once a year and their wellbeing function has been championed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who sees them playing a key role in his “social prescribing” strategy, across the board there has been a 13% reduction in funding for museums from 2007 to 2017, according to the Mendoza review, a report on museums in England commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
“It’s a crisis,” said Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association. “The local authorities, which traditionally have been a very stable funder of museums and galleries, are having to make really tough decisions. They are choices of whether you fund statutory services like social care or non-statutory services like culture, leisure and museums. The statutory services tend to take precedence and so this means there has been a hollowing out of the museums sector.”
Underfunding of museums outside London has led to cultural “cold spots”, the Mendoza report found. These areas include the east Midlands and the north-east, with the former also experiencing the biggest cut in funding: 24% from 2010 to 2015. “It’s hard to think of areas that aren’t affected by these cuts,” the museums consultant Peter Latchford said, referencing the fact that between 2005 and 2014, 40 museums closed across England.
Latchford sees the decline in museums as symptomatic not only of budget cuts but also of a wider re-evaluation of the role of museums. “Society is increasingly polarised,” he said, “and museums are one of the few institutions which are still trusted and which can mediate and encourage discussion. They have access to broad sectors of society but because they are rooted locally, they find it very difficult to come together as a movement. If they did, they could be a very powerful force.”
A diplodocus dinosaur skeleton, known as Dippy, at Birmingham Museum as part of a national tour. Photograph: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images
One way in which regional museums are coming together is through the formation of trusts. Although still geographically limited, these provide smaller cultural institutions with pooled resources and greater potential for fundraising, including developing commercial activities such as hiring out spaces and selling merchandise.
Birmingham Museums trust, which was founded in 2012, was hit with cuts in 2014 that led to a loss of 40 members of staff and reduced opening hours. “That was a very tough time,” said Ellen McAdam, the trust’s director, “and we’ve had to make adjustments to earn our living. That means generating a lot of our income from our trading company, which runs the cafes and shops in our venues. We’re also doing a lot more weddings and late-night events, developing our own merchandise based on our collections, and we’re exploring doing business with China too.”
Although this might impact on Latchford’s ideals of the museum being a meeting place for ideas and education, McAdam sees no other solution. “The fact that the nationals are centrally funded is unfair to the taxpayer,” she said. “An organisation like the British Museum is taxpayer-funded but 80% of its visitors are tourists, whereas we are serving the longsuffering council-taxpayers of Birmingham.”
Regional museums also house collections “of national significance”, and McAdam believes this should be reflected in their funding. “Running a major collection presents a significant business overhead and some degree of support for having a nationally important collection would be welcome and fair,” she said. “We hear about smaller cities and shire counties’ museums which are teetering on the brink of closing down if another round of cuts come through but London feels like another country when I go there now. It’s so much more affluent than everywhere else, it’s dreadful.”
Visitors outside the British Museum in London. Photograph: infomods/Getty Images
Ian Watson, the libraries and museums manager at Lancashire county council, believes there needs to be a change in how we value our museums. “There’s no statutory requirement for local authorities to have a museum, so it can make them an easy target when cuts need to be made,” he said, “but we need to have a wider understanding of what museums are for – they contribute massively to the community and quality of life. They are not just buildings full of stuff. Otherwise museums close, as has happened here.”
For Butler, hiring out gallery space and increasing commercial opportunities have led Derby Museums away from the cliff edge – “but it’s very fragile and we’re dicing on the edge of unsustainability”, he said. “This government sees funding for museums as a luxury and they have washed their hands of the situation outside of London.”
Source: The Guardian