The year in review

Maurice Davies, 18.12.2013
2013 has had its share of ups and downs
It's been an eventful year.

Four things that appeared repeatedly in my thoughts will continue to dominate UK museums in the new year ahead.

First, sale of collections. The tragic asset-stripping of Chinese ceramics by Croydon Council is by far the most valuable sale of collections by a UK museum for at least a generation. The fact it was unethical and sloppily managed makes it a travesty.

A few other local authorities appear to be twitching to do something similar: proposals have been floated by Northampton and Southampton. Fortunately they appear to be more thoughtful than Croydon and I dearly hope they will adopt an approach that meets the requirements of the Code of Ethics.

Looking further ahead, we can perhaps expect to see more sales of collections if the sometimes vast capital assets of museums become increasingly anachronistic in the face of apparently unending reductions in public spending.

That brings me to the second issue of 2013 that will continue into 2014: austerity and its impact. The MA’s 2013 survey of museums shows, predictably, that half of responding museums experienced a fall in income in the past year, with 37% cutting staff and 28% reducing the number of free events. And these cuts came on top of cuts in previous years.

Perhaps less predictably, the survey found that a significant minority of museums are finding it hard to raise money elsewhere. 22% saw a fall in self-generated income and 17% attracted less individual giving at a time when there’s been lots of encouragement, support and motivation to increase those income streams. It might be early days, but these falls suggest that for some museums the money might simply not be there.

What that means is anyone’s guess. On the bright side, in the past year or so extraordinarily few museums have actually closed and participation is at a historic high in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland (there’s no data for Wales).

The Museums Association’s survey also looked ahead to 2014 and found that almost half of responding museums plan to do more to encourage participation and help create better places – two of the themes of Museums Change Lives, my third big thing from this year.

That document is the MA’s vision for the impact on museums and its focus on museums having clear social impacts will be a growing theme in 2014. We can expect increasing interest in the differences museums make to individuals, to communities and to places.

Researchers will be reporting more on museum impacts and funders, notably the Heritage Lottery Fund, will be paying increasing attention to the outcome of their funding.

And finally, funding, or the lack thereof, loomed large in 2013. November saw the remarkable Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report that revealed in stark terms how much more generously culture is funded in London than elsewhere in England.

There are good historical reasons for the imbalance – and it’s been pointed out before. This time, the data is so shocking – and culture in the regions is being so badly hit – that we mustn’t let the issue fade away.

My new year’s resolution is to refuse to conform to the capital’s mixture of indifference and embarrassment about this disparity, and to do what I can to keep the discussion going.