“One in five regional museums have closed”: so how can cities protect them?

Birmingham Museum in happier times. Image: Getty.

Imagine you are in London's South Kensington district. You pass the glorious Romanesque architecture of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road, before turning onto Exhibition Road where you encounter not one but two more museums, the V&A and the Science Museum. Now imagine that, instead of being open to the public and bursting with tourists, they were closed and dilapidated, Dippy the dinosaur outside with a “for sale” sign around his neck.

Of course, this is unlikely to ever happen. London’s big national museums are safe, funding-wise. Across the rest of England though, it is a very different story. 

This year started off badly for culture lovers, with a warning from the Birmingham Museums Trust that it might have to close nine sites because of funding cuts. This is an alarmingly common theme. Five museums in Lancashire closed last autumn. In 2015 a Museums Association survey showed that one in five regional museums have closed or planned to partially close.

The thing is, the big museums in London get funding directly from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). During his time as the austerity chancellor, George Osborne protected their funding and their location means they can easily raise money from alternative sources. 

By unfortunate contrast, most regional museums – the 400-odd main ones you associate with a city or town such as Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery – are heavily reliant on increasingly-squeezed local authority funding. (The rest comes from the DCMS, via Arts Council England.) The straw about to break Birmingham Museums Trusts’ back is a proposed £750,000 cut to the council grant it would get in 2017-18. That’s 24 per cent less funding than in the previous fiscal year.

“Poorer areas and areas with a higher degree of strain on their other services will really struggle to have any type of cultural provision in the years to come,” warns Alistair Brown, policy officer for the Museums Association. Even a recent DCMS select committee report agreed, stating that “contrary to the government’s stated wish to make culture more accessible, it will become less so” outside of London.

So how do we counter this cultural desertification?

There are some pernickety legalities that would make life easier – making gift aid simpler, and allowing museums education status to receive business rate reliefs.

Giving local authority museums more operational freedom is another solution; there are horror stories of some having their marketing limited by rules such as one restricting them to only three tweets a week from the council Twitter account. The bid for freedom has been gradually manifesting itself in the emergence of trusts, whereby the buildings and collections are still owned by the local council but the museums are run by a charitable trust.

“What it’s meant operationally is that we can work more independently,” says Tony Butler, head of Derby Museums Trust. He cites a more “entrepreneurial culture” when you don’t have to worry about what a senior councillor thinks.

The introduction of venue hire and the production of an exhibition for Rolls Royce are examples of this culture change. “We’ve moved from a model of being about 95 per cent dependent on public funding through the Arts council and the local authority down to around 60 per cent over three years.”

That solution is not fool-proof however. Local authority funds are still important: just look at Birmingham Museums Trust. “We need time to make that change,” argues Butler. “We have to look at ways of public funding to help organisations make that transition over five or 10 years or so.”

Butler is a fan of endowments, which are big in the US. The biggest problem however, is a lack of fundraising talent – “outside of London, those skills are really nascent”.

“I think partnerships and networks are absolutely vital,” says John Orna-Ornstein, director of museums at ACE, which funds schemes that encourage sharing of expertise and partnerships.


This solution does appear to have the most traction in the sector, with many examples already in existence. The V&A loans thousands of objects and provide curatorial training in conjunction with Nottingham Museums and Museums Sheffield. Derby Museums Trust, as mentioned above, partnered with Rolls Royce. The National Museums Liverpool got Department of Health funding to run a "House of memories" programme to help carers engage with dementia patients.

Indeed, the select committee report wants government to build on this. It proposed that, in future, all centrally-funded institutions should only receive money if they mentor regional organisations.

But “there’s a limit to the extent you can push that agenda,” warns Brown. “Lots of museums are being encouraged to do partnerships but at the same time they are shedding lots of staff.” You need a skilled team to enable a useful partnership – and people require paying.

As Brown summarises: “The problem is essentially one of funding. Until you crack that, everything you do around the edges will be helpful, but is not going to radically change the situation.”  

Orna-Ornstein is firm that ACE can’t become the funder of last resort, however. “We have to make sensible decisions about where to invest and its very difficult to invest in a failing business.” That essentially means money going to waste – money that is much needed elsewhere.

The onus then is on Westminster to look beyond its doorstep and fund its regional museums. Or at the very least give them more time to find alternative finances.

 
 
 
 

17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.


14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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