Getting our priorities right

Alistair Brown, 14.09.2016
My wishlist for England’s long-awaited Museums Review
So England is finally getting its Museums Review. Promised in the Culture White Paper, then briefly threatened by Brexit and changes in government, the review was formally launched by the new culture minister for England, Matt Hancock, last week.

The MA has been arguing for this review for some time, as an opportunity to think about the strategic direction that government can provide to museums. What should it be cheerleading for? What should it be funding? How can the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) help museums to have an impact as far and wide as possible?

The reviewers, led by Neil Mendoza and Kate Bellamy in the DCMS, have thus far shown genuine enthusiasm for answering these questions. We are told that everything – except free entry to national museums – is on the table, and that means looking at regional museums as well as the national museums directly funded by the DCMS.

So where should the DCMS steer the sector with this review? To my mind there are a few things that should be at the top of the list:

Firstly, I’d like to see government recognition of and support for the contribution that museums make to communities across the UK. The rise of participatory practice, of high quality museum-based education, and of health and wellbeing projects, is transforming the sector and improving people’s lives. This work is making museums valued social and cultural institutions that are loved by increasingly diverse audiences.

With the new government professing to want greater equality following the Brexit vote, museums are well-placed to deliver – but will require support in government, not just from the DCMS, but also from the Department of Health, the Department for Education and others.

Secondly, the DCMS must recognise the crisis facing local authority museums and take urgent action to avoid widespread closures, financially motivated sale of collections and loss of key staff. Thus far, central government’s response has been limited to shoulder-shrugging and blaming the local authorities delivering the cuts.

But the culture minister should take a leadership role in helping local authority museums to thrive. He may not have it in his gift to restore local authority spending to pre-crisis levels, but he can make it clear that he supports a mix of public, lottery and philanthropic investment in the sector, and can do more to redress the imbalance in cultural spending between London and the regions.
He might also consider bringing in practical measures to ensure that local authority museums have some of the procurement, communications and revenue freedoms that national museums already enjoy. It is surely time that all museums have control of their own websites, social media accounts and other means of communicating with their users.
There is of course more – plenty more – that government can do: protecting freedom of movement and the rights of museum staff following Brexit; developing new collections solutions for the 21st century; developing the tourism potential of regional museums.

I’ll be gathering together views and evidence for the Museums Association’s formal submission to the review over the next few weeks, and will be discussing these issues with colleagues across the sector. Please do contribute to this conversation – either by getting in touch with me or by submitting your own response.