2015: What’s around the corner?

Alistair Brown, 06.01.2015
Cuts, ethics and the election
With the new year bells now a distant echo, the Museums Association (MA) is back to work, and a cursory glance at my January in tray throws up three words which I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more of this year: cuts, ethics and the election.

It’s a mixed picture, so in time honoured tradition, let’s deal with the bad news first: budget cuts continue to take their toll on museums – particularly local authority and national museums. The end of last year saw new cuts rolling in from the Highlands to Derby to Birmingham and Northern Ireland.

However, there are positives to be found.

Government figures released late last year show that there has been some stabilisation in local authority spending on museums in aggregate – the problem is that some local authorities suffer much more severely than others in times of austerity. So the MA will be campaigning hard this year to demonstrate the value of museums and help our members make the case for continued investment.

Museums are adapting to the changing landscape. The rush to resilience has already made earned income a greater focus, with many museums looking at how to expand their commercial and catering offers (and the UK is not alone – Italy’s government has demanded similar changes from its museums).

Above all, museums are looking for financial sustainability. I think that we will see more museums attempt to set up endowments over the coming year.

Endowments are designed to give organisations a greater degree of financial independence, but the amount required to set up a useful fund is usually large in relation to the size of the institution. As a result, endowments could be the right answer for some museums, but might not be the solution for others.

Then there’s the election. It will be one of the factors that determines how our museums fare in the coming years, so we need to ask what the next government’s culture policy will look like.

If I had my way it would embrace the idea that museums are not just a nice-to-have extra but vital champions of learning and social change – and it would fund them accordingly. As the election campaign gets going, the MA will be engaging with all the main political parties to show just how museums change lives.

I’ll also be paying close attention to the new government’s plans for local government and devolution of power – both issues that are increasingly on the agenda after the Scottish referendum.

Devolving power to the regions does not necessarily mean that there will be better cultural provision, but the Scottish and Welsh models have shown that there is potential for culture to be an important pillar of devolved government.

Before we get to May, I will be busy with the MA’s ongoing consultation on the code of ethics. The consultation is already attracting a great deal of attention from across sector – and rightly so. The new code, which we hope to publish in November, will be the foundation of museum practice for years to come.

Please do take the time to fill in a response to the consultation before 13 February.

Alistair is the MA's policy officer. Follow him on Twitter @acbrown511