Manifesto making

Sharon Heal, 13.05.2015
What the election result means for museums
On the day after the election I was at the beautiful Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex to meet staff, hear about their redevelopment plans and the fantastic work that they do with local communities, families and students.

The trip also gave me some time to digest the election results and what they might mean for museums.

None of the party manifestos said much about museums, and the Conservative Party’s manifesto was no exception. It did, however, promise to keep free entry for national museums in England, although it was widely rumored that conversations about reintroducing charges were taking place behind closed doors before the election and that several national museum directors are in favour.

Free entry is not the be all and end all of museum policy but it is still an important signifier – and has been a key factor in underpinning the incredible increase in visitor figures that we have witnessed over the past decade.

Woe betide the culture minister that tackles this thorny question – look what happened to Hugo Swire. I’m all for pragmatism in policy but if we want to sustain strong visitor figures and widen audiences at national institutions then we need remove all the barriers to access, not introduce fees.

The manifesto said the Conservatives will give national museums greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit. Great news if it happens - they are meant to be arms length bodies after all. But if they do get that freedom (and even if they don’t) they would do well to bear in mind that if they want to be truly national, in name and reality, they have to widen their delivery and partnerships in mutual collaboration with institutions across the UK.

The manifesto also promised funding to support projects in the north. This is obviously good news, although note to Tories, Manchester is not synonymous with the north.

Few would begrudge the city the attention or success it has recently received but there are other bits of the north that are just as deserving - and come to think of it what about the Midlands?

Why just the north and why just the "powerhouses"? The south west has brilliant museums and galleries but also has poor infrastructure and transport links and is struggling with all the same issues of economic decline, increasing needs, and competing demands on shrinking pots of public funding.

Now is the time for government, including the new secretary of state and the newly promoted minister for culture and business to think across the piece. Let’s move away from disjointed funding and think strategically about what museums at their best can provide and, more importantly, what the public need.

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