“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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.