Crisis, what crisis?

Maurice Davies, 26.06.2013
Mixed messages on the state of the sector
Sometimes it feels like museums are falling apart.

The Science Museum talks of closing one of its sites; Croydon plans to sell things from its museum collection to fund Fairfield Halls; and Newcastle is cutting museum funding by over 40%...

But other times it feels like museums are thriving. Public participation in museums is at an all-time high; people trust museums highly; and museums are having ever wider social impacts...

There are mixed messages everywhere you look. The Museums Association says: “We risk having the world’s largest collection of white elephants up and down the country with museums either closed or unable to deliver adequate levels of service.”

John Whittingdale, chair of the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee is so worried about shrunken revenue funding that he suggests there might be a need to “consider - perhaps on only a temporary basis - the flexibility of national lottery funding” and start using it “for meeting ongoing costs”.

Harriet Harman, shadow culture secretary, says: “While the headlines trumpet our success, behind the scenes there is an arts emergency, especially in the regions.” She cautions it takes years to build up the arts “but they can be destroyed at the stroke of a pen”.

But ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport insist that the arts are in fine form, “waving not drowning” and parody those who draw attention to the impact of cuts as claiming “the barbarians are at the gates”.

And culture secretary Maria Miller comes close to dismissing claims of a crisis as “laughable” and is pleased to confirm “funding for the arts and museums will be reduced by just five per cent... a significantly better outcome than many may have expected”.

Whatever the messages, the stark fact is that the recent cuts in public funding for museums are unprecedented.

It’s remarkable that there’s a sense of relief in English national museums that they are going to be cut by “only” a further 5%, when this means their government grants will have been cut by over 25% by 2016.

And local authorities in England will have lost a third of their funding by 2016. It’s hard to see how they will cope with their statutory services, let alone museums.

And yet despite this, many museums seem more successful than ever.

In the past few weeks I’ve attended the East Midlands Heritage Awards, packed with examples of museums working ever more closely with their communities. On the national stage the Art Fund Prize showed more success.

At the British Museum (BM) I met the enthusiastic participants in their Fresh Leads leadership scheme on the same evening that the BM did a worldwide live cinema broadcast of its Pompeii exhibition.

And next week, the Museums Association is launching Museums Change Lives, our ambitious vision for the impact museums can have.

What’s the explanation for this simultaneous triumph and crisis? How can museums be so successful in spite of shrinking public funding?

To a large degree it’s because of the skills and commitment of people who work for museums.

Beyond that, consider these three points: first, many of the things being achieved by museums are based on work undertaken years ago, before the cuts; second, museums are getting more audience- and community-focused and it’s paying dividends; third, and this is the most worrying, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The cuts have a lot further to go. Many museums have only had the first instalment of their cuts. They know there are more ahead and that the worst is yet to come.

Most museums may not be in crisis yet, but they know that one is looming.