11 May

What the election result means for museums: Five more years preoccupied with money worries

Maurice Davies

When the election result came in I was working in Vienna, a monument to imperial hubris, if ever there was one. Vienna is a city rather used to its grandeur having passed, so it proved a suitable place to think the implications of five more years of civic decline.

I turned to the Conservative manifesto section on culture and found it gave little away. The proximity of George Osborne’s constituency means a bizarre preoccupation with Labour heartland Manchester, mentioned twice in the single paragraph on ‘our world leading museums, galleries and heritage’. Away from the Northern Powerhouse, there’s the previously announced Stonehenge road tunnel and new concert hall for London (£300m and counting, apparently); and of course the obligatory commitment to free admission to national museums.

Sadly, there’s nothing new at all. No ideas, no understanding of potential, no enthusiasm and no sense of direction.

The only phrase that sounds remotely like policy is the intention to ‘enable our cultural institutions to benefit from greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit.’ That is: ‘We’re going to cut off your limbs, but give you the freedom to acquire your own choice of prosthetics.’

Money worries will dominate the next few years. There will be more job losses, more freelancers and further downward pressure on salaries and fees. In contrast, the growth of apprenticeships and the hunger of fee-driven universities will train ever greater numbers of people to work in the shrinking sector. All of this is unlikely to contribute to workforce diversity, or to a radical, progressive generation, determined to challenge and change museums.

For many local authority museums the position is this: move to trust status, but unless by a miracle you can negotiate a long-term funding agreement, you’ll be financially largely on your own in three to five years. Former local-authority museums in wealthier tourist centres might thrive. York Museums Trust now describes itself as a ‘cultural business’ rather than a cultural service – and has announced admission charges for its last remaining free venue.

Smaller ex-local-authority museums might thrive, too, in this case by changing to a very low cost, community focused, participatory model – constantly fundraising and making best use of volunteers: more like an independent museum, in fact.

Independents are used to standing on their own feet and will continue to do so. But many rely on some public money or other support, like peppercorn rents or 100% rates relief, and will struggle if that reduces, especially if they are financially weak.

And what of the great civic museums, until recently seen as the backbone of UK museum provision. Manchester’s, evidently, will survive (especially as several are in the cash-rich university sector). But the future for Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle, for Coventry, Bradford and Sunderland is hard to fathom. Will local and national government really let them decline back to their state in the 1980s? I fear some local-authority museum trusts will go bust and hand back the keys.

In spite of 30% cuts, nationals are maintaining a successful public face, retaining opening hours, free admission and tantalising exhibition programmes. But more cuts will bring one or two to the brink. They will threaten introduce admission charges (and may do so) and, as in Scotland and Wales, it is likely that an England national or two will close a branch or two – or perhaps shut one day a week. Against a background of austerity and devastating cuts to social care and, now, even schools, this won’t seem shocking to the public. There will be little media fuss.

Finally, sales of collections will become more common. Thoughtful independent museums will realise it’s sometimes sensible to sell a few things to strengthen their balance sheets. Some local authorities will be so desperate to meet the needs of their struggling communities they will force sales from their museums’ collections.

Most of the UK’s museum collections were built up when we were a great imperial power. Perhaps the Tories quietly recognise that. However, and unlike Vienna, the Tories appear to believe our reduced economic and political importance mean we can’t quite afford museums any more. How wrong they are.

22 Apr

Match the museum to the rhetoric

Maurice Davies

I attended my first MuseumNext conference in Geneva and it made me realise how much museums still need to change.

The conference was inspiring, even to an old cynic like me. It was forward-looking, optimistic, even idealistic. Speakers and delegates surveyed possible futures without fear, seeing endless opportunities to engage more people more deeply. It was a hugely refreshing counterbalance to recent backward-looking, almost fearful events in the UK, like Future Curator at the British Museum and Does the Museum Just Preserve the Museum? organised by Cambridge University Museums.

In part, of course, it was because many of the museums represented aren’t facing the terrifying level of cuts in public spending that we are in the UK. But it wasn’t only about money. MuseumNext revealed a hunger to change museums to make them better for their audiences. The key phrase was ‘disruptive change’. (For all that I liked its idealism, Bullshit Bingo is an easy game to play at MuseumNext.)

I had expected the conference to be dominated by designers and digital people, but it was much broader than that. There were many interpreters, youth programmers, exhibition makers, HR people, marketers, chief operating officers and directors, although rather few curators. Most of all, there were what could be called museum entrepreneurs, some from museums, some from private companies and some from charities and foundations, all of them bursting with ideas and schemes to keep making museums better, from MuseumHack’s lively ‘renegade’ group tours featuring gossip and games, to Stephen Feber’s bold but eccentric vision of museum as interactive Amazon warehouse.

For a brief few hours in the conference room, it was easy to imagine museums are already transformed. But stepping out into Geneva’s spring sunshine was a useful corrective. The city has two shiny new museums: the Ethnography Museum and the Museum of the Red Cross. At MuseumNext, both of their directors said all of the right things – about community, engagement, participation, contemporary relevance and so on. But the realities proved different.

The Ethnography Museum’s changes cost over £40m (This is wealthy Geneva, rich at other cities expense: a place that specialises in incubating money that should be paid in taxes elsewhere on the globe.) For their £40m+ the good citizens of Geneva and the world have got a smart, neatly installed and well lit subterranean gallery that is, well, a little dull. The museum has been at such pains to democratically de-exoticise the ‘other’ that it makes the strange seem pedestrian and ordinary, when surely a key purpose of ethnography is to render the familiar strange.

The new Museum of Ethnography in Geneva.  £40m+ and a bit dull

The new Museum of Ethnography in Geneva. £40m+ but a bit dull

And for a museum about people, it’s oddly depersonalised. It reports it undertook extensive consultation, but includes no voices other than those of the curators and a couple of carefully selected artists. The opening temporary exhibition on royal Mochica culture in part of what is now Peru, features gorgeous objects and spectacular settings, but the didactic interpretation is too worthy and lacks a sense of passion. The experience of visiting falls well short of the director’s ambition and the general ambition of MuseumNext participants.

I enjoyed the Red Cross Museum more. Also housed in a basement, it took the brave, some might say foolhardy, step of commissioning three separate architects to design its three main thematic galleries. Best is the one about the Red Cross’s work to reunite families; it taught me lots, moved me and gave me hope. That’s the best feature of the Red Cross Museum: in spite of addressing the most ghastly episodes of inhumanity, it gives a sense that people, individually and collectively, can move on positively from the most horrific experiences imaginable. I will remember the quiet dignity of the former Guantanamo detainee and the once displaced Rwandan schoolgirl, who says she is now a ‘happy’ grown woman, for a long time.

Some of the 6m record cards used to connect families with WWI prisoners of war.  A symbol of hope at the Red Cross Museum

Some of the 6m record cards used to connect families with WWI prisoners of war.
A symbol of hope at the Red Cross Museum

I also enjoyed the temporary exhibition on art and non-violent resistance, from Houston’s Menil collection. Again, it gave hope and a sense that exceptional individuals do make a difference.

Sadly, the gallery, by the respected Japanese architect Shigeru Ban on disaster preparedness, is a childish disappointment. And the museum’s greatest failure is to give a very low profile to current humanitarian disasters – an omission especially disappointing viewed through the lens of MuseumNext’s passion for connecting with people’s contemporary concerns.

In museums we clearly need some ‘disruptive’ change to move us on from, or to at least add to, our core centuries-old technique of displaying old objects in neat rows, often untouchable, behind glass. Above all, we need to connect our collections and displays with the world.

15 Apr

Holding out for a hero?

Helen Wilkinson

Contemplating media coverage of Neil MacGregor’s resignation from the British Museum, one of my friends remarked ‘you’d think he ran the place on his own’. Most news reports of MacGregor’s intended departure last week had two common narrative elements: the extent to which he has reinvented the museum, and just how hard he will be to replace. This notion of the heroic leader may bring necessary narrative simplicity to organisational complexity. But the idea that MacGregor is the museum is a myth – even if some argue that his approach to broadcasting has done nothing to discourage it – and one that does no service to the richness and strangeness of the museum which employs him.

Not only is the BM’s narrative trajectory far more complicated than that of a Cinderella story moving from dust and obscurity to dazzling success, but no major institutional change is ever the sole creation of one individual. Museums are public institutions, and the kind of change that can happen in museums depends firstly on the backdrop of the broader financial, social and political circumstances of the time. Museums like the BM have a very long history, which also helps to determine what change is possible – not that a new leader is simply ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, but that they inevitably have to choose how to respond to that legacy. Especially in museums – organisations dedicated to preservation and continuity – it can never be year zero.

But most crucially, the culture of any large institution with hundreds of staff and volunteers is built on hundreds of thousands of relationships. Time for a bit of maths: in any given group where n is the number of members, the number of potential relationships within that group is n x (n-1)/2. So a museum with ten staff and volunteers has 10×9/2 potential relationships to contend with – 45. A museum with 1000 staff and volunteers has 499500 potential relationships which help shape its culture. The relationship between the leader and the others only accounts for 999 of those – or 0.2% of the total. Of course, some of those 1000 never meet – but that figure does point to an underlying truth. Not only is an organisation like the BM – one full of talented, clever and driven people – much more than its leader, it has a complex ecosystem of relationships which determine much of its character and will be affected but not reinvented by a change of leader.

The British Museum is not the only great European cultural establishment anticipating the departure of a charismatic leader. When Simon Rattle announced in 2013 that he would not renew his contract after 2018, speculation immediately began about who would replace him as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. News reports of his intended departure shared some of the tropes of those about MacGregor – charismatic, high profile leader transforms great institution, who can succeed him, etc. But there is a different element at play in the succession in Berlin where the final choice rests not with trustees, but with the orchestral players, who vote for their own leader. Staff at Bloomsbury do not get to choose their new leader, but they will continue to play by far the greater part in determining the culture of the organisation he or she takes on.

27 Mar

Textbooks v Tweets: Museums’ Cultural Challenge

Maurice Davies

Last week I heard a whole bunch of things that made me understand the cultural challenge facing museums. First, after finishing my stint teaching on the Oxford Cultural Leaders programme I stayed on to listen to Keith Ruddle of the Said Business School talk about what he calls ‘adaptive leadership’.

Adaptive leadership is needed in organisations and situations that are highly complex and unpredictable, perhaps because significant things (say, levels of public funding or climate change) are completely outside the organisation’s control. Every challenge is new and leaders inevitably won’t know the answers to problems. Rather, the job of the leader is to encourage and support the whole organisation to explore new ways of working so that the inevitable changes are constructive.

Most museums need adaptive leadership, but are perhaps more comfortable with its opposite: technical leadership, or the efficient direction of tried and tested processes. That’s fine if your aim is to produce relatively fixed, complete, repetitive things that don’t change very much or very often.

But the unchanging museum or exhibition, seen as complete on the day is opens, is increasingly outmoded, as I heard at an enjoyable talk by up and coming French museum designer Adrien Gardere. He is rapidly becoming the go-to guy for high profile museums. He’s done the Louvre at Lens, the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo (tragically blown up by terrorists) and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (which I reviewed here). He’s working at the Met and the Royal Academy – and MuReNa in Narbonne, which wins my prize for the most bat-shit crazy and wonderful museum proposal of the decade so far.

At MuReNa, Gardere is working with the UK’s Fosters architects to design an installation of moveable, massive carved Roman stone blocks. They will be displayed on racking, alongside avs, and regularly rearranged using forklifts! So much for permanent displays…

Image credit: Foster and Partners

Image credit: Foster and Partners

I also went to a debate about how much museums are changing because of cuts.

By the end of the week I wanted an idea that could bring all these insights together. Luckily, on Friday night I came across a piece, written in 2013, by Katharine Viner the newly appointed Guardian editor. Brilliantly, she observes “A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.” She’s talking about the need for newsprint journalism to change, but she could be talking about museum curation.

In the 21st century, things are increasingly fluid, provisional and relative; the process and the conversation is more important than the result. Nothing can ever be seen as complete or finished, and taking part matters more that observing.

But in this world of social media, museums are still trying to write textbooks!

Devising new models for today’s fragmented, flexible, ever-shifting culture is surely the biggest challenge facing museums.

13 Mar

A new balance? Ethics and museums in 2015

Helen Wilkinson

The Museum Consultancy was pleased to have chance to respond to the Museums Association’s consultation on the review of the Code of Ethics last month. We’ve all been involved in the development and interpretation of earlier versions of the Code of Ethics from the inside, so it was interesting to take an external perspective on this revision.

Codes of Ethics have to be living documents, evolving in response to changing circumstances and new understandings of what museums are and can be. No statement of our shared ethical principles should ever be seen as fixed and definitive.

That said, some areas of the current code still seem absolutely robust. There is really no need, for example, to revisit the balance between access and preservation as the consultation suggested. The current code makes it clear that it is the job of a museum to reconcile the desirability of preservation with the obligation to optimise access: weighing the requirements of access against the requirements of preservation is at the heart of what museums do and an area where people who work in museums make finely balanced decisions every day of their working lives.

But in other areas, thinking and practice has moved on. Return of material to places and peoples of origin is more common now than when the current code was written, so the new code could take a more positive line. Museums can engage with requests for return positively, seeing them as an opportunity to build relationships with a source community and so enrich their work. We stressed in our response that museums should make every effort to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to the community of origin and to the museum’s local stakeholders, so that it can be the basis of long-term cross cultural understanding and dialogue. And there are good examples where this has happened – so thanks to the pioneering work of a small number of museums, something which used to cause much angst no longer seems so difficult.

If return of material is an area where museums feel more confident than they did a decade ago, other areas seem more contentious than before. In 2015, freedom of speech seems newly problematic – from social media to journalism to universities. In a year when freedom of speech has become no longer an academic question but a matter of life and death, what are the implications of this for museums, especially those hosting co-curated displays?

We think that firm guidance may be premature, as this is still an emerging area and practical experience is very limited. It is important that a wide range of people and opinions have the opportunity to contribute to museum content. Museums should aim for a wide range of views rather than taking a narrow editorial line – more BBC than newspaper, perhaps.

But what if some of those views are contentious or deeply offensive to others? Can museums allow partner organisations to cause offence within (or on) their walls? In principle, we think the answer is yes. Museums should not attempt to censor or control what people want to say. Freedom of speech, within the limits of the law, should be a fundamental value for museums. And freedom of speech should be more important than the risk of offending a particular individual or group.

But of course museums should also promote equality, diversity and human rights – values we stressed elsewhere in our consultation response. So, what to do when freedom of speech seems to come into conflict with an equality imperative? Perhaps that will be the most difficult balancing act for museums in the next decade.

12 Feb

The end of permanence: Are museums still for ever?

Maurice Davies

Leicestershire County Council has confirmed it intends to close Snibston, its largest museum, on 31 July; it will be demolished, replaced with housing and, possibly, a small museum on the mining history of the site.

The closure plans have been met with energetic local protest, and professional condemnation.

Unless the council has a rethink, Snibston will be the most significant museum closure from public-spending cuts. So far, closures have been limited to far smaller museums, such as ones in London boroughs. And museums have been surviving far better than libraries – over a hundred of them have gone.

So what does it mean when a major museum closes?

First, it reminds me I’m getting old. I remember when Snibston opened in the early 1990s, and even hazily remember a party there, when the Museums Association conference was held in Leicester.

More seriously, it demonstrates that museums are not always, in the words of the ICOM definition, ‘a permanent institution’. That might not be a bad thing. Aiming to exist for ever is quite a burden; it can lead museums to respond too slowly to changing demands as they perhaps think a little too much about the supposed needs of the future as opposed to the needs of today.

Thinking shorter-term than ‘permanent’ can be liberating, allowing museums to experiment and take more risks.

Certainly, it would be good to shake off the curse of the ‘permanent’ display (where permanent means ‘a decade or two’ rather than ‘for ever’). Permanent displays take years to plan, design and construct – and often feel dated on the day they open. Something easier to change and update, more fleet of foot and less, well, permanent would be better in many cases. Tate Britain demonstrates the benefits of regularly changing ‘permanent’ displays, even for a national collection.

And perhaps collections are becoming a little less permanent. Back in the early 1990s when Snibston opened, disposal was unusual, even frowned upon. Now, it’s standard practice to review collections and remove the less significant material.

Sale of collections is also becoming slightly more common. While controversial, when done responsibly it is perhaps less damaging to museums than once anticipated.

The long-term fate of Snibston’s substantial collection is not yet clear and the costs of dealing with it properly will be substantial. Perhaps, eventually, some will be sold. That may shock some people, but it may be better than keeping things in store for decades, unseen and unused.

Snibston’s closure is sad, and will be a substantial loss to the local area. It should make us think about whether museums are becoming less than permanent and whether that might be a good or a bad thing.

19 Jan

Same difference?

Helen Wilkinson

DCMS has announced that last year 48% of new public appointments to the boards of organisations it funds were women. This narrowly misses its 50% target, but it shows what can be done if you try.

I’d like to live in a world where positive action wasn’t necessary and everyone had equal opportunities and was promoted on merit. Until we live in that world, I think positive action is sometimes needed, and I welcome what DCMS is trying to achieve.

It sends a message to the many regional museums whose boards are woefully male dominated. (The recent ACE review of evidence on equality and diversity across the cultural sector workforce suggested that women were especially poorly represented at board level within the Major Partner Museums, compared to other parts of the cultural sector.)

But equal representation – of women, of black, Asian and minority-ethnic people, of disabled people – is only the beginning. Diversity of boards or workplaces isn’t just about who has a seat at the table. It’s also about how those people are treated once they’re there, and whether they are able to have an effective voice and to make a positive difference.

The Museum Consultancy undertook a piece of work for ACE last year on workforce and board diversity. Some of our interviewees who had been involved in programmes to diversify boards observed that sometimes people say they want diversity, but actually they just want things to stay the same. Organisations feel they’ve met an obligation and ticked a diversity box by appointing a trustee who looks different because of their race, age, gender or disability, but don’t give them the space to be different.

Boards that want to change their culture, not just their profile, have to respect and listen to the views of people who think differently. They may also have to offer support to people with expertise from another field who lack knowledge of the sector, so that they can become informed enough to offer helpful insight. It’s too easy to let certain kinds of knowledge, or even certain forms of language, become a shibboleth and place less value on the contribution of someone who doesn’t have them.

So let’s celebrate the 48%, but challenge all museums to demonstrate that they are open, thoughtful and respectful towards difference in the workplace and the board room – not just in their demographics and in their structures, but in the way that they behave.

15 Jan

Roll up, roll up. Get your lovely collections here! What museums might learn from street markets

Maurice Davies

Sometimes using analogies can help us think about our work. Herbert Coutts, who used to run the city’s museums in Edinburgh, once pointed out that if museums were indeed society’s new temples or churches (as many argued they were at the time) then the onus on curators was great, because it made them society’s new priests.

21st-century priests do not, I expect, spend much of their time researching and analysing the scriptures. They are busy planning and delivering church activities, fundraising to repair the roof or build a small extension, sitting in meetings with other community organisations and, probably most importantly of all, helping improve individual lives – giving a little help and hope to the lonely, the destitute, the ill and the bereaved. Modestly changing lives is what society expects from its priests.

If they are lucky, our priests might find a little time, probably during the evening (if they are not called away), to think a little about the next day’s sermon, largely drawing on knowledge they acquired from study many decades ago.

They in a small way help to care for and preserve religious knowledge and values, and they communicate that to their core audience. That’s usually on a Sunday morning, when most of their audience has turned up primarily for reasons that are social, rather than spiritual.

Not so different, perhaps, to the lot of the curator.

But museums are no longer seen as churches or temples. Rather they are seen as the forum or the agora: a central public gathering place, usually including a market, where people come together for a variety of reasons, perhaps attending simply because it is there. Once there, they might participate in shared activities, be exposed to new ideas, or experience goods presented in the market.

If the 21st-century museum is the agora, then perhaps curators are akin to market traders – gathering together things to meet people’s needs and desires, entertaining them, stimulating curiosity and animating a public space.

The market trader uses their skills and expertise to select the goods and present them to the people. Many of the goods are known and expected – safe and familiar. But from time to time there, the market trader challenges with something new in an attempt to expand the audience’s horizons.

Recently I was in the market in Hatfield, a down-at-heel place patronised mainly by a mixture of white working class people and overseas students from the University of Hertfordshire. I was queuing up and, to my slight surprise, heard the elderly white woman in front say ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten the sweet potatoes.’

Evidently at previous encounters at the veg stall, or perhaps with a cookery programme on TV, our elderly lady’s curiosity had been piqued, her tastes had been challenged and now her experiences were enhanced. The stall holder had performed her curatorial duty. She had introduced her audience to something new.

In the proper 21st-century curatorial manner, note that her focus had not been directed towards studying the wide variety of species of sweet potato, towards writing papers about them for other market traders or (heaven forbid) painstakingly recording details of each sweet potatoes in her stock control system (or, heaven forbid even more, travelling to international conferences to compare approaches to digitising records of sweet potatoes). Our market trader knows that the heart of her job is to engage her audience with her objects.

There is probably much else to learn from market traders in terms of low-cost operation, surviving and thriving in the face of globalised competition, changing focus to respond to new audiences (I expect many of the stall’s original sweet-potato purchasers were overseas students) and coping with the whims of local authorities.

I expect by now you get my point. The heart of the museum’s task is simple: to communicate with a wide audience about its collection; and the heart of the curator’s job is to engage people and modestly improve their lives.

This is an extract from a talk given to the conference Does the Museum just Preserve the Museum?

01 Dec

Slick or soul-full? Museums and commercial attractions.

Helen Wilkinson

There’s a long history of museums learning – or being exhorted to learn – from commercial attractions. And it goes back further than you might think: at the University of Leicester Museums Alive conference last month I heard a fascinating short presentation from Katie Murray, a PhD student in St Andrews, who is researching the commercial polar exhibitions which the pioneer explorers put on to help finance their expeditions. At a time when most museum presentations of polar exploration concentrated only on the scientific discoveries, the commercial exhibitions met a public desire for insight into the daily lives of the explorers – their sleeping bags, their clothes, what it felt like to be there. And in time museums were pressured into collecting this kind of material too.

Nearer our own time, the founders of the independent museum movement in the 1970s looked to the commercial sector, taking from other visitor attractions the idea that museums might actually be fun, and – perhaps in a deliberate example of ‘Épater la bourgeoisie’ – suggesting that Disneyland had much to teach the museum sector, in terms of ‘visitor friendliness’ and the ability to welcome and offer a good experience to large numbers of people.

I was pondering what today’s lessons might be when I had one of the odder mini-breaks of my life last month and spent a night in a Premier Inn in Stoke-on-Trent so that I could combine taking my kids to see the Staffordshire Hoard with taking them to Alton Towers the next day.

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery was almost entirely deserted on a Sunday afternoon, which perhaps reflects not so much on what the museum has to offer as on its surroundings. (I was delighted to read last week that regeneration is beginning to make an impact in Stoke, but Hanley town centre on a chilly November Sunday was as depressing an urban experience as I’ve had for a long time.)

But the museum is getting a lot of those ‘things you might expect museums to learn from commercial attractions’ absolutely right. Unprompted, a lively and engaging museum assistant came over to talk to my children about the hoard and spent ages pointing out tiny details to intrigue them. She obviously loved the museum and its collection and genuinely cared that visitors had a good time. Compare Alton Towers – some of the staff were friendly, some disinterested and off hand. No one particularly went the extra mile. Staff attitude to visitors? One-nil to the museum.

In the Staffordshire Hoard display, the museum had replica clothes and a helmet to try on and a corner of the gallery designed for photo opportunities. We all know that theme parks are great at offering photos to visitors – but at £10 a time, so I don’t really think that’s a point in the attraction’s favour either.

The museum has a well-stocked shop with a good pocket money range, a reasonable choice of books, plenty of unusual gifts and cards to attract passing trade and a great ceramic selection (of course) where I bought my new favourite mug (from the Moorland Pottery range). Alton Towers doesn’t lack retail outlets, of course, but you’d struggle to buy anything that genuinely captured the flavour of the place and couldn’t have come from any other theme park on the planet. I think that makes it three-nil.

I’d say toilets and catering were pretty much honours even (which is something neither of them should feel particularly proud about). And overall? Well of course, it’s nonsense to compare. On fun Alton Towers obviously won hands down. But I’d say that museums have plenty to teach commercial attractions about the importance of soul, values and genuine warmth over mere brand. At a time when museums have to pay more attention than ever to the bottom line, we should all remember that it’s never ‘all about the bottom line’.

06 Nov

Do regional museums care about the money?

Maurice Davies

There’s good news for the English regions in the recent report into arts funding from the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee. It states unequivocally that they are underfunded and that Arts Council should do something about it, quick.

Arts Council chair Peter Bazalgette agrees things need to change, but rather feebly says it’s all a bit tricky and it will take a long time – unless he gets more money. He also tries to give the impression that the Arts Council is increasing the proportion of funds it spends regionally, albeit slowly. However, independent analysis in the PLACE report suggests that may not be the case: arts funding may in fact be as unfair as ever.

One thing we do know is that museum funding is massively skewed in favour of London. That’s not the Arts Council’s fault at all, rather it’s because of direct Culture Department funding to the national museums, most of which are located in London, for perfectly understandable historical reasons.

So, the target of regional museums should be DCMS. In this, Arts Council could potentially be an ally, as could local authorities, universities and local MPs. There is an opening now in light of the Select Committee’s call for the Culture Department to create an arts policy and to have grown-up conversations with local authorities, the often unsung heroes of support for most major museums outside London.

The Select Committee report is seminal and the timing is perfect, with the general election just months away and all main political parties in internal chaos.

Now is exactly the time for regional museums to quickly build a strong campaign, working with arts colleagues, to argue for more government money. The key aim should be to get a few dozen backbench MPs engaged actively. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all desperate to keep their backbenchers onside. It’s hard to do this around issues like migration and HS2, but improving regional arts funding would be an easy way to cheer up grumpy MPs – if only museums put the effort into making the MPs grumpy in the first place.

But the silence from regional museums and arts heads has been deafening. As far as I can tell, apart from Peter Wilson, chief exec of the Norwich Theatre Royal, there’s nothing from them in the national and regional media; there’s not even much on Twitter (unless I follow all the wrong people).

That seems a little negligent, especially as several people have been speaking up for the status quo. Mayor of London Boris Johnson and his team have been all over the place, peddling dodgy facts and inconsistent arguments. (I had my first disinformation presentation from the Mayor’s office at an 8.30am meeting the day the report came out.)

For the National Museums Diane Lees got her arguments in early in an interview for Museums and Heritage. And the Arts Council don’t look likely to do very much very soon.

So, regional museum directors, boards and staff, It’s up to you to make your case.

I’d be delighted to give you more detailed advice how you could go about it.