Good year affords the SMG breathing space - Museums Association

Good year affords the SMG breathing space

Only a year after threatening to close one of its sites, the Science Museum Group is back on a firmer footing. Geraldine Kendall reports
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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A few weeks ago, the Science Museum in London hosted a reception to mark what its director Ian Blatchford described as an “exceptional” year for the institution.

Exceptional it certainly has been – in more ways than one. While the museum enjoyed record visitor figures and fundraising prowess over the past year, its parent organisation, the Science Museum Group (SMG), achieved the distinction of being the UK’s first national institution to threaten the closure of one of its sites after the nationals were asked to model cuts of up to 15% for 2015-16.

The headline-grabbing announcement led to accusations that Blatchford was calling the government’s bluff – something he strenuously denied when questioned by MPs at a hastily convened select committee inquiry into the SMG’s future.

Bluff or not, it had a big impact. High-profile campaigns were launched to save the three northern museums under threat – the Museum of Science and Industry (Mosi) in Manchester, York’s National Railway Museum (NRM) and Bradford’s National Media Museum (NMM) – and culture minister Ed Vaizey was obliged to make a public vow that closure was not an option.

Falling funding

In the end, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) handed down a cut of 5% – not quite as bad as it could have been, although it still means the SMG’s funding will fall by more than £2m in 2015-16 (see graph).

Blatchford has proved to be a canny political operator. On joining the National Museum of Science and Industry Group as director in 2010, he swiftly consolidated his role by taking on the leadership of the Science Museum, which until then had been led by a separate director.



Since then, the organisation (which later changed its name to the SMG) has seen major changes in management, structure and branding, while dealing with what has been, in real terms, a 25% cut to its public subsidy.

This is in addition to taking on responsibility for Mosi after the DCMS ceased direct sponsorship of the museum.

Blatchford, whose background in finance and accountancy may be proving useful in the current climate, has developed a reputation for a pragmatic but somewhat ruthless streak.

Since joining, he has shelved a £150m capital redevelopment at the Science Museum, changed the leadership of all three northern museums – with two of the directors replaced by staff from the London site – and abolished the role of director at the NMM (though the role has now been re-established).

Even now, the dust hasn’t quite settled; Mosi will soon be on its third director since joining the SMG in 2011, with Sally MacDonald of University College London due to take up the role in September.

It could be argued that this centralisation of power is necessary in the face of funding cuts, enabling the SMG to make strategic decisions to safeguard its long-term sustainability. The group has been steadily coordinating its entrepreneurial and fundraising efforts, raising more than £2m last year via on-the-door donations.

Appliance of science

It is also keen to establish a more aligned vision that will renew its focus on scientific learning and research – a strategy that may help it to attract further sponsorship from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department for Education.

But some fault lines have emerged. The SMG was heavily criticised during last year’s closure controversy for exacerbating the north-south divide, with many outraged that the group’s London site remained safe while its northern counterparts were being pitted against each other for survival.

The SMG was also accused of failing audiences from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The NMM, situated in an economically deprived city, was confirmed as being the site most at risk, and the select committee questioned whether it was being deliberately neglected as part of a strategy of “managed decline”, so that it could eventually be moved to the capital.

Blatchford has categorically denied this, saying the museum is in the process of a restructure to give it a greater focus on science and technology, and to build on the commercial potential of its Imax cinema.

Full-steam ahead

Controversy aside, the SMG has been moving ahead with several major projects. In London, the Science Museum is developing several new spaces, including a £5m mathematics gallery, a £4m interactive gallery and a £24m suite of galleries on the history of medicine.

The museum has also appointed an architect to build an on-site library, having closed the one on the Imperial College London campus earlier this year.

In September, the London site opened its long-delayed Media Space, which was developed in partnership with the NMM to showcase the National Photography Collection.

But how have the northern museums fared since last year’s drama? Mosi is on a high after winning an £800,000 DCMS grant to develop a purpose-built space for temporary exhibitions.

The NRM has also had a good year. The museum attracted record commercial revenue and visitor numbers following its Great Gathering festival, which brought together six steam locomotives. Cost-cutting measures, however, have forced the museum to close its library and archives to the public three days a week.

But the outlook remains mixed for the NMM, with visitor numbers falling by 13,000. Last month, Ed Vaizey was somewhat less robust about the museum’s future in Bradford, saying that he was unable to update MPs when questioned on the matter again at a select committee hearing.

The SMG may be on a more secure footing than it was 12 months ago, but this could all change if a new government with new spending priorities comes to power next year.

An SMG spokesman warns: “Site closure is not being considered in the current funding circumstances, but if they change, we may have to revisit this issue.”

We have found innovative ways of generating income

The ongoing reduction in our core funding only serves to ignite our imagination in order to find new ways of raising much-needed funds. We have made sure we are as effective as we can be at our core businesses, while at the same time looking for new and different ways of driving value from the overall offer.

Income from commercial trading has increased steadily over the past seven years, with the overall contribution to the group from our businesses standing at a record £3.2m.

Proactively asking visitors for a donation on their way into our museums has proved as successful as it is simple.

We have also been successful in finding other new sources of funding, one of which is a new DCMS loans programme.

This is a pilot scheme whereby the Treasury has made funds available to the DCMS for its leading sponsored arm’s-length bodies, which have been invited to submit a business case to borrow money for capital projects at competitive rates.

The cumulative effect of this hive of activity has been to lessen the SMG’s dependence on grant-in-aid through identifying increasingly innovative ways to drive new income.

Jonathan Newby, chief operating officer, Science Museum Group

Correction
01.07.2014

The suite of medical galleries will cost £24m rather than £13.5m as originally stated. The SMG has also clarified that while the role of director at the NMM was abolished in 2012, it has now been reinstated.



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