A positive year for museums could be lull before the storm

The MA’s first Museums in the UK report reveals a complex picture of a dynamic sector that is struggling with funding cuts
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Last month, the Museums Association (MA) released its first Museums in the UK report, which aims to offer a comprehensive picture of the state of the museum sector. Replacing the cuts surveys, which were conducted by the MA between 2011 and 2015, the remit of the Museums in the UK report has broadened to look at not just the impact of funding cuts and austerity, but at the wider forces influencing the sector, and the challenges and opportunities that museums of all types and sizes may meet in the coming years. The survey took place from September to November 2016, and covers the financial year 2015-16. In total, 453 organisations responded, from every nation – almost 20% of the UK’s 2,500 or so museums. Positives and negatives A complex picture emerges from the report. On the one hand, it shows a sector that is dynamic, ambitious, hugely valued for the vital role it plays in public life – and on the other, a sector that is suffering due to funding cuts, unable to reach its full potential and falling short in areas in which it once excelled. The MA’s previous surveys have shown that the damage inflicted by funding cuts on some parts of the sector is severe, particularly in disadvantaged regions. The worst impacts include not just the haemorrhaging of staff and expertise – along with hugely increased strain on the remaining workforce – but a significant curtailing of public benefit and access, including, in a growing number of cases, the closure of entire museums. According to Museums in the UK, at least 64 such closures have taken place since 2010, leaving some areas at risk of becoming cultural deserts. Unsurprisingly, given the UK government’s continued appetite for austerity, the latest report shows that the funding crisis for public- sector museums shows no signs of abating. It cites government figures showing a 31% reduction in local authority funding, in real terms, for English museums and galleries between 2011 and 2016. Over the same period, local government revenue spending on culture, heritage, libraries and leisure services in Wales fell by 26% in real terms, while funding for cultural and related services among Scottish local authorities decreased by just under 5% in real terms (a similar breakdown of the figures for Northern Ireland was unavailable). These reductions are playing out in different ways across the sector. The MA’s survey found that 24% of all respondents experienced a drop in their regular public income in 2015-16, rising to 34% of local authority museums, 73% of national museums and 75% of former local authority museums. Geographic differences There were some notable shifts in the geographic pattern of cuts (see graphs, p13), with respondents in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland reporting decreases in significantly higher numbers than those in England. This appears to indicate that, although approaches to spending cuts in the devolved nations have differed, austerity is now catching up across the board (although, as the report also points out, the relatively lower level of cuts in England is likely due to the brief pause between election cycles that year, rather than a long- term respite). The knock-on impact of these cuts is tangible across almost every area of museum activity. As one respondent wrote: “Our options are to make staff redundant, increase our charges across all activities, cut costs [and] reduce our free events. It will be a combination of all of these factors.” Elsewhere in the survey, the data backs up such anecdotes. There is a noticeable correlation, for example, between the number of respondents reporting cuts in regular public income, and the proportion experiencing decreases in visitor numbers and paid staff. For example, former local authority museums – which appear to have been particularly badly hit in 2015-16 – accounted for some of the highest proportion of respondents reporting a drop in public income (75%), cuts in paid full-time equivalent staff (57%) and a decrease in visitor numbers (50%). Meanwhile, museums in Wales, where public income decreased among 64% of respondents, revealed the highest rate of volunteer recruitment. Huge strides However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for museum finances. The sector has taken huge strides in recent years to diversify its income streams, finding often-ingenious ways to boost self-generated income and fundraising capacity. These measures are gradually paying off; 42% of all respondents said their earned income had increased in 2015-16, including 50% of former local authority museums and 36% of local authority museums. Museums of all types are certainly becoming more business-savvy. One respondent wrote: “We took the running of the museum cafe in-house [it was previously a franchise] and built it up from a limited service to a fully fledged museum cafe.” Museums also appear to be making inroads in their fundraising efforts, with 37% saying their income from grants, donations and philanthropic giving has increased. What’s interesting here is that some regions that have in the past struggled to keep up in terms of fundraising, such as north- east England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all reported increases in above- average numbers. The report makes clear, however, that there’s a long road ahead for many museums to maximise their capacity to fundraise and generate income; the pace of cuts is too fast for some to adapt to, and even then, for many, neither funding stream can fully make up for the loss in public income. Cause for concern Several other areas of the survey confirm some worrying trends. Recent data from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport showed a 3.1% fall in the overall number of school visits to museums in England in 2015-16. This corresponds to the MA’s survey, which found that almost a fifth of museums had suffered a drop in school visits, including 36% of nationals, 24% of local authority museums and 18% of independent museums. Although a higher proportion of respondents (36%) reported an increase, the data does indicate a downward trend in engagement with schools among some types of museums. It appears that significant changes to the national curriculum over the past few years, particularly in England, as well as a reduced capacity among some museums to deliver education services, are starting to have a tangible impact on the sector. Similarly, visitor figures – which have been on the rise for years – appear to have experienced a slowdown in some areas in 2015-16, with a quarter of respondents reporting a decrease, rising to a third of local authority museums and 45% of national museums. The reasons for this drop are not always straightforward. Among some museums, the decrease is undoubtedly linked to funding cuts, which have led to measures such as the introduction of admission charges, reduced access and cuts in public-facing activities. External factors are also at play, such as heightened anxiety about terrorism discouraging visitors to some nationals. It should be pointed out, however, that across the board, visitor figures remain robust, with 46% of museums experiencing an increase, and many organisations, such as National Museums Scotland, welcoming record numbers through their doors in 2015- 16. This would indicate that there has been no slowdown in the popularity of museums; decreases seem more likely to be linked to individual circumstance rather than changing tastes. According to Museums in the UK, staff numbers remained relatively stable in 2015-16, although 15% of respondents reported a decrease in paid full-time- equivalent staff. As expected, these proportions were worse among publicly funded museums, rising to 26% of local authority museums and 55% of national museums. This loss of staff – coupled with even larger cuts to the workforce in previous years – continues to have an impact on the wider workforce; several respondents wrote of stress caused by insufficient staff numbers, as well as skills shortages, difficulties in recruiting due to low pay, and a growing reliance on unskilled volunteers. Disadvantaged audiences For the past few years, the MA has been encouraging museums to focus on socially engaged practice, particularly with disadvantaged or under- represented audiences, in order to increase their impact on society and, by doing so, demonstrate their relevance to communities and sustainability to funders (a new version of Museums Change Lives, the MA’s vision for social impact, was published at the end of March). The survey revealed encouraging signs that many museums are engaging in vital work in this area, with almost 40% saying they had engaged in targeted work with health and wellbeing providers, a quarter saying they had done so with black, Asian and minority-ethnic communities, and 47% with youth groups. However, others, such as disability and LGBTQ+ groups, weren’t so well represented in this area. It is clear from the survey that this is a dynamic and emerging area of museum practice, but there is still some way to go if museums are to maximise their representation of – and impact on – as varied an audience as possible. All in all, the Museums in the UK report points to a turbulent but, in many ways, positive year for the museum sector. In retrospect, however, it may be the calm before the storm. With Brexit and another Scottish independence referendum on the horizon – as well no end in sight to austerity – the survey may well paint a very different picture over the next few years.
New phase of Museums Change Lives is well timed
The last year was a turbulent one for museums and the communities that they serve. Continuing public sector cuts, changes in government, Brexit and a rise in intolerance have led to uncertainty for many. This survey points to a mixed picture. Museums are more popular than ever and are increasingly working with disadvantaged and under- represented groups to meet the challenges of a divided society. But there is more to be done, so the MA is launching the second phase of its Museums Change Lives campaign and encouraging museums to up their efforts to connect with their communities. People who work in and with museums are committed and passionate about what they do, but they are being asked to do more, and this survey points to the fact that cuts have led to a loss of expertise, and a rise in volunteering. The MA will support the whole workforce to develop the skills needed to work in partnership with communities and other stakeholders to create sustainable and vibrant organisations. The survey shows that museums have worked hard to generate additional income in often ingenious ways, but this is sometimes not enough. In the past year, museums in Lancashire and Kirklees have closed, and many publicly funded museums face further budget cuts. For many museums, earned income cannot replace public investment, and the MA will continue to campaign and advocate for the retention of public funding through initiatives such as Museums Day and the Museums Taskforce.

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