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.