Fears for the future of civic museums - Museums Association

Fears for the future of civic museums

A joint statement from the English Civic Museums Network, Museums Association and National Museum Directors’ Council

As the main bodies which represent town and city museums in England, we are extremely concerned about the recovery and ongoing sustainability of civic museums.

Over the past few weeks Birmingham Museums Trust and York Museums Trust have both announced large-scale redundancy consultations. In June the chief executive of Leeds City Council warned that extra spending due to Covid-19 could force it to take “draconian measures”, and that non-statutory services such as museums could be cut.

These challenges are replicated across the country – at least five English councils have warned that they might not be able to balance their budgets, and the BBC reports that more than 150 councils are forecasting a combined budget shortfall of at least £3.2bn. For hundreds of civic museums their local authority is a major source of investment, so these pressures, together with the loss of commercial and donated income due to the Covid crisis, are putting their future in jeopardy.

The loss of income from cafes, retail, events, donations and ticketing during lockdown, combined with the much-reduced visitor capacity required in order to remain Covid-safe, mean that civic museums are currently projecting an average drop of -81% in commercial profits and -66% in donations this year1.

However there could be worse to come, as civic museums are most concerned about funding from 2021 onwards when shortfalls may force councils to impose radical austerity measures. Government support via DCMS’s Culture Recovery Fund is extremely welcome – but because it must be spent in the current financial year, it does not address the looming crisis for civic museums from 2021.

Despite this threat, civic museums have incredible potential to support the reawakening and reimagining of thriving town and city centres. During lockdown museums provided solace, education and entertainment through their outreach work, whilst ensuring our valued cultural heritage was safe and secure. With museums now opening again they can re-affirm their role to connect people and build a sense of identity, cohesion and place. They are well placed to help people reflect upon the disruption of the pandemic and to reunite communities. They are a vital draw for domestic and international tourism, both of which will be crucial for economic recovery.

With long-term investment civic museums can play a vital role in the UK’s recovery, but first they need to survive. To do this they need:

  • Extension of the Culture Recovery Fund into 2021-22 financial year for local authority museums and trusts.
  • Funding settlements for local authorities that enable them to continue to invest in museums as part of place-based recovery agendas.

Investment in museums across the country now will help address regional inequalities and the government’s levelling up agenda, and support the good work already being done in our town and city centres through the High Street and Town Funds.

Tony Butler, director of Derby Museums Trust and member of the English Civic Museums Network Steering Group and the National Museum Directors’ Council Executive Committee said: “Many civic museums, in places like Derby, have been in the vanguard of the reopening of cultural life in our towns and cities. They have been in the front line of cultural recovery, helping people re-connect with each other and their place.

“Covid-19 has accelerated the already declining role of retail in city centres and civic museums have a huge role to play in re-imagining them as places in which to live, work, play and learn.”

Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, said: “We are deeply concerned about the plight of town and city museums throughout the UK. Local authorities are in a difficult position because of the extra costs associated with dealing with Covid-19 and the prospect of future cuts to their budgets.

“We are already hearing of major local authorities that are considering not funding their museums and galleries because they are non-statutory services. We are deeply concerned that some museums will not be able to reopen after lockdown. Museums are vital civic spaces and can play a critical role in rebuilding and recovery with their communities – but they need funding to be able to do that.”

Ian Blatchford, chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council and director and chief executive of the Science Museum Group said: “Civic museums have already weathered brutal cuts to their services over the last 10 years, adapting their business models to find alternative sources of funding, but the current crisis means they are being pushed to the limit.

“This government has already committed to supporting our towns and regions, so investing in museums, a core part of our civic infrastructure, is a key way of ensuring that people everywhere can benefit.”

  • The English Civic Museums Network represents 47 town and city museums in England.
  • The Museums Association represents 1,500 museums across the UK.
  • The National Museum Directors’ Council represents 46 national and major regional museums, libraries and archives across the UK.
  • 1 based on survey data on the impact of Covid-19 in the current financial year across the membership of the English Civic Museums Network. The impact beyond 2020-21 is likely to be severe.