“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.

 
 
 
 

An art installation in Derry/Londonderry will double as a suicide preventing tactic

The Peace Bridge over the river Foyle, Derry/Londonderry, 2013. Image: Getty.

Since the Good Friday Peace Agreement, more people have died from suicide in Northern Ireland than were killed during the troubles, leaving the province with the highest suicide rate in the UK. This is a particular issue for the city of Derry/Londonderry which has the highest suicide rate in Northern Ireland

Since 2016, a team of designers from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, working with the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, have been investigating how design approaches might improve mental health in the city. Their focus has been on the River Foyle – a dominant city landmark which has negative connotations for mental health issues in the city.

Historically the river has acted as an unofficial ‘peace’ wall. “It has separated communities,” says local Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCalion. The opening of the Peace Bridge in 2011 connected the divided east and west banks of the city, “but unfortunately there is a reality as well – regrettably a number of people take their own lives in the river.” 

The local phrase ‘ready for the Foyle’ is used in jest at times of stress or hardship. A recent spike in suicidal incidences on the river has contributed to pressure on the city to respond. However, the river also plays a positive role in the city’s history. 


One of the more unusual events to take place at the river has become a departure point for the project. In 1977, at the height of the troubles, an Orca whale – nicknamed locally as Dopey Dick – made its way up the river Foyle in search of salmon. For several days the whale became a point of community cohesion – a distraction from the ongoing violence.

The team built a full-size replica whale to float down the river as part of Derry’s yearly Maritime festival and Halloween celebrations. Using the whale as a research base, they asked people about how they would improve the riverfront. 

“The response was amazing,” says project leader Ralf Alwani. ”We began to understand how the whale holds such significance, and why it still resonates as a positive memory. We learned that the river plays such a significant role in the local consciousness. So we began to think about how the project could do something similar by reanimating the river in a positive way – creating a sense of festival.”

The team’s first proposal – responding to suicide behaviour along the bridges of the Foyle – is the Foyle Reeds project. Around 12,000 extruded, digitally interactive ‘reeds’ will be installed along the existing barrier of the city’s main river crossing, the Foyle Bridge, in what will become the largest art installation in Northern Ireland. The Reeds will create an architectural barrier that aims to prevent planned suicides. Unlike traditional prevention barriers, which feel imprisoning, the reeds will interact with pedestrians, changing colour as they detect the movement of people. People can also adopt a reed for a small fee, and change their colour for a special occasion.  

The second proposal is Foyle Bubbles, a series of small portable spaces that can be deployed around the riverfront. The ‘Bubbles’ will house community, arts, leisure, and commercial groups. The team hopes that the ‘bubbles’ will incubate entrepreneurial activity and generate festivity in the area. The occupiers of the ‘Bubbles’ will also undergo mental health awareness training, to help them spot those in crisis along the river providing a community response without the clinical stigma.  

This is the first time a project of this kind and scale has been undertaken. If successful it will likely take a generation for negative perceptions of the river to change. Alwani is aware of the project’s limitations: “Art and design are not the silver bullet.” But research carried out by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has shown that mental health can be improved by “changing how a place feels.” 

The centre’s director Dr. Layla McCay says that, “One theory is that installations that evoke nature can make people feel less anxious and reduce suicidal thoughts; another is that investing in places that have meaning to communities can evoke pride in a neighbourhood and can improve feelings of belonging and self-esteem. The Foyle Reeds project has elements of both of these theories.”

Visuals courtesy of Vizrage; photos by Ralf Alwani.