Thatcher’s legacy

Maurice Davies, 09.04.2013
Museums are better for Thatcher’s policies
Following the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death yesterday it struck me that although she may not have been much-loved by many in the cultural sector, she did cause some good things to happen to museums: some of these things were a direct result of Thatcher government policy; others were acts of opposition to it.

Three Thatcher initiatives in particular spring to mind, with largely positive impacts for the sector.

Firstly, people were given a stronger sense of their rights to public services, including museums.

These rights were conceived in terms of being a consumer (rather than a citizen or a participant) – but it nonetheless gave many museums a far stronger focus on their audiences. This laid the ground for the New Labour emphasis on access for all.

Secondly, national museums were given more autonomy from government. This made it easier for them to generate their own income from fundraising and trading, and gave them control of their buildings (freeing them from the dead-hand of the government’s Property Services Agency).

Most importantly, it laid the ground for the transformation of most national museums and allowed a brilliant generation of entrepreneurial museum leaders to thrive.

Unfortunately it also had the negative effect of positioning national museums as separate businesses which put them in competition with each other and tended to distance them from regional museums, something from which some nationals have only recently begun to recover.

The Thatcher changes are one of the key factors that still seem to make a joined-up museum strategy for England impossible to achieve.

Thirdly, the Education Reform Act that delegated increased funding to schools encouraged museum education to be more responsive to audiences and, in the long-run, more creative (although in the short-term it did a lot of damage to existing services).

But a number of good things happened in opposition to Thatcher’s policies - in those local authorities that energetically promoted what was then called equal opportunities and multiculturalism; in much of the arts; and in many areas of scholarship.

It was also during the Thatcher years that proper government attention started to be paid to the need to properly manage collections, held on behalf of the public, but too often neglected - inaccessible, undocumented and badly stored.

My overriding memory of Thatcher’s rule is of a time of strife and aggressive conflict, but it was also a time of modernisation of management and increased audience focus.

With hindsight, the sequence of Thatcher, Major (with the introduction of the National Lottery) and then New Labour (with the focus on creativity and access) served museums well and, love her or hate her, Thatcher’s legacy was on the whole good for our sector.


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17.04.2013, 14:33
Margaret Thatcher's legacy includes turning British industry into a theme park as industries were forced to close rather than be helped/encouraged to modernise. The great glut of small independent site specific museums emerged during her era. With the industries went the skills and we are now obliged to run 'heritage skills' programmes to recover them. I agree with Vanessa, we take the long view and recognise the value of things to society and work creatively (and for a pittance) to see it survives.
11.04.2013, 07:41
Perhaps what this shows is that museums and museum people are creative and flexible enough to survive whatever the circumstances and irrespective of government policies. The very nature of our business is to take the long view, both looking after the past and looking into the future, so that we are not fazed by political u-turns or short-term set-backs. Perhaps what doesn't kill us really does make us stronger.