Tipping the scales

Maurice Davies, 14.11.2013
Why should London have it all?
An enticing new theme emerged at the Museums Association (MA) conference in Liverpool this week – a widespread recognition of the huge inequity in the balance of funding between London and the English regions.

Thanks to the Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report, no one can deny that there’s around 14 times as much cultural funding per head in London as elsewhere in England.

This inequity was skilfully demonstrated by the MA's president David Anderson, who highlighted similar discrepancies between London and the regions in levels of philanthropic and corporate funding.

The most astonishing statistic in Anderson’s presidential address is that even though London funding levels are so much higher, public participation in culture is pretty much the same in London as it is in the rest of England. Remarkably, all the extra money spent in the capital doesn’t appear to make much difference to whether people are likely to regularly visit or not.

This shows it’s not just about the money, said Anderson – it’s about what you spend it on. I agree and the data appears to suggest that away from the capital public money has a far greater impact on local audiences.

So how can we address the disparity between public funding in London and elsewhere? The authors of Rebalancing our Cultural Capital suggest, gently and reasonably, that for the next five years lottery money for the arts should be distributed on a per capita basis, with London getting no more than its fair share.

I’d also like to see more co-ordinated approach to touring temporary exhibitions round England - indeed round the whole of the UK. It should be relatively simple to build on Artist Rooms and National Touring Exhibitions (both of which deal primarily with modern and contemporary art) to create a national programme of regionally hosted exhibitions on a wide range of subjects.

People already have relatively local access to great touring theatre, music, dance and opera - they could have similar access to great cultural heritage shows.

Both of these suggestions are possible and affordable. They are about nuanced reorganisation of existing approaches and funding. They would improve the London/regional balance – but not solve it.

At the beginning of the conference, Iain Watson of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums explained that people who predict dramatically different versions of the future are usually seen as ridiculous fools in their own time. I am now going to be foolish, probably ridiculous.

In the short term we won’t be able to achieve a fair balance between London and the regions because so much museum provision is physically located in London. It might be impossible today – but it’s highly desirable in the longer term.

In, say, 20 or 30 years’ time of course there should be similar levels of funding throughout the country. That must be our aspiration.

So how might we reach this nirvana of museum equality?

I’ve been wracking my brain all week and have come up with one answer. It may sound ridiculous, but do let me play devil's advocate and pay it just a little attention.

I’m a great fan of the new Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean in Marseille. It’s a great museum, in a stunning building, boldy engaging with contemporary issues of gender and identity. But most significantly, it’s the first French national museum based outside Paris. It’s not a branch of a national museum; rather it’s a standalone national museum based in a region.

In England the Royal Armouries boldly moved from London to Leeds, to much metropolitan complaint. No other museum followed suit, partly because the Armouries’ move was a bit of a private finance initiative mess.

But could moving more major cultural organisations away from London be an answer? Why shouldn’t we move one the two big London Tates to Manchester, the Natural History Museum to Sheffield and the National Army Museum to Newcastle? I’m not talking about opening “branches” – I’m talking about a lock, stock and barrel move.

You’ll scoff that it would be astonishingly expensive. I suggest it’s more a matter of policy and will. (And you could probably pay for the moves by disposing of the prime London sites.)

It’s through an accident of just 200 years of history that so many of England’s major museums are in London. That can’t be changed overnight – but what if there was a plan to change things within a generation?

It would help transform the nation, spreading cultural opportunities more fairly - and sensibly redistribute some economic activity away from an over-heating capital.

Rebalancing our Cultural Capital points out that by 2016 the BBC plans to have half of network television programmes made outside London. Could we have a similar ambition?

Would the country be a better place in, say, 2040 if half of the national museums were headquartered outside London? A Civitas report out this month suggests that at least one think-tank agrees this would be a good idea...


This piece was updated to include the link to the Civitas report.


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Oliver Green
MA Member
20.11.2013, 14:41
The Rebalancing report is mainly concerned with arts funding in England and in particular the performing and creative arts, rather than museums. The heavily weighted balance towards London of national arts funding is certainly huge, and of course most of the DCMS revenue supported national museums are in London.
HLF funding has been more widely distributed than Arts Lottery, altho' London does still get more than its fair share. The real problem is future revenue funding and sustainability. Most local authorities are no longer willing or able to support cultural services and are looking to close or outsource them wherever they can. This is a double whammy for the English regions because as we know outside London it is very hard to raise external financial support from private or business sources.
Museums and the arts generally cannot thrive outside London without subsidy, but where is this going to come from? Moving some of the nationals out of London lock, stock and barrel as you suggest is definitely not the answer...who benefits from that and is it really what anyone wants?
The Liverpool solution would be much better: national funding but local management outside local government for museums and galleries in the major regional cities of England, based on population (say Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, then a second tier of six smaller cities).
It won't happen of course because even big cities like Birmingham seem to have no influence at Westminster any more and none of the political parties are interested in life outside the M25 and south of the Scots border. Shame, because as we all saw in Liverpool, it can make a huge difference if the spending is sustained.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.11.2013, 09:08
Thanks for your comment, Oliver. I haven't done the sums, but I suspect the London/English regions imbalanceis in fact worse for museums than that for the arts.

I'm sure you'll agree that we believe culture genuinely makes a difference to people's lives and opportunities, so we have to find a solution. As you say, it's unlikely to be found in increased central-government funding for large regional museums, or in funding from local authorities.

So, the only answer I can see is a long-term plan to distribute some of the national museums currently in London to other cities. You ask 'who benefits from that and is it really what anyone wants'. I'd say people who live in places that would get a relocated national museum would certainly benefit!

And I think most people wouldn't mind much either way. For most UK residents the current location in London doesn't make visiting particularly easy. Apart from those living in and near to London, most only visit big nationals once a generation (as a child, with the kids, with the grandchildren...), so it wouldn't make much difference to them whether they were in London or another city! And as for international tourists, we've long wanted them to visit more places other than London and this could help with that...

But perhaps you have a alternative solution? Me, I can't think of one!
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
15.11.2013, 23:27
It would be great to see the HLF funding a series of touring exhibitions over the medium to long term using national collections, or even better still rolling out a scheme where local and regional museums etc can apply to the HLF for funding to allow them to borrow national collections and interpret them in new ways that work with their local audiences and communities. The HLF have dipped their toe in the water in this area by backing Sharing Treasures in Wales, now it is time for them to dive right in and apply it across the whole of the UK.

Touring exhibitions would involve far more museums and more communities than building satellites or moving national museums out of London into the regions, though I fully admit it is not as glamourous and eye catching a solution as spending millions moving a museum from one part of the country to another. However, you don't need to be an expert in geography and visitor studies to make a case that moving the Royal Armouries to Leeds, while making that collection accessible to people in that part of Yorkshire, has made it rather less accessible to everyone else!