Some of the museum’s objects are of national and international significance: natural history and botanic specimens collected by the naturalist Hugh Falconer, who was a contemporary of Charles Darwin; and letters between the industrialist Alexander Falconer and a who’s who of prominent figures from the Victorian era. If a third-party operator cannot be found, these collections will be mothballed for the foreseeable future.
But museum professionals are warning of a slow-burning crisis that has played out largely under the radar so far, with several other museum services in difficulty, operating with skeleton staff and minimal resources.
“There’s at least one other local authority that doesn’t really have a museum service any more because it got rid of the post. We have no idea who’s running it and if it’s still alive,” says one museum professional. It is difficult to map out a national picture because the smaller local authority museums do not have a body that speaks for them as a collective voice, she adds.
There is a general feeling among museum professionals in Scotland that the cuts of the past 10 years are finally coming home to roost. According to Scottish government figures, there was a real-terms decrease of 24% in council spending on “culture and related services” between 2010-11 and 2017-18.
For museums in Scotland, the severity and pace of these spending reductions has been slightly slower than it has been for their counterparts south of the border: local authority-funded museums in Scotland have lost about 3% of their public funding every year on average, according to the head of one council-run trust, speaking anonymously due to ongoing budget negotiations. But the cumulative impact of those cuts is now becoming apparent – and there are more still on the horizon.
“We’ve got to the end of the invisible cuts,” says the professional. “The next stage of the cuts has the potential to be much more disruptive. Many services are at the point where they will have to make drastic changes.”
Lack of alternative funding
One of the key problems in Scotland is that there are fewer alternative sources of public funding to fall back on. Although England has sadly seen its fair share of museums closing, the sector has been somewhat cushioned by the level of support that remains available from Arts Council England (ACE), which spends £41.5m annually on its stable of 72 museum National Portfolio Organisations, in addition to substantial National Lottery project grants, training grants, Accreditation support and the Museum Development Network.
In contrast, the total grants awarded by Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) across all of its schemes came to £1.74m in 2017-18. This means that ACE spends almost five times as much per Accredited museum in England as MGS spends in Scotland. Additionally, ACE provides core funding, while MGS’s grants are project based.
The struggles that many museums face may come as something of a surprise in the context of Scotland’s booming tourism industry, which has outperformed the rest of the UK for the past seven years. About 45% of those tourists are drawn specifically by the country’s museum offer – a positive statistic, but one that means some museums are a victim of their own success, with wear and tear taking an increasing toll.
A tourist tax may be one solution, but it won’t work everywhere. So what can be done to address the looming funding crisis facing local authority-funded museums? Among some professionals, there is a growing consensus that even if public funding does rise again, the sector must take its future into its own hands and become more self-sustaining.
This will require strong leadership, says Boal. “We need to think about income generation in a creative and strategic way. It’s about seeing opportunities, joining the dots, making connections with outside agencies – and not being afraid to generate income.”
The sector also needs to get better at speaking with a collective voice and advocating its value to councils and other stakeholders, she believes. “We have to be clear about what we’ve got and articulate our impact,” says Boal. “We have to be the people who stand up and shout.”
Some museums have already started doing this successfully. Gairloch Museum in the Highlands is one example of an institution that pulled itself back from the brink: faced with funding cuts and the termination of its lease, the community-led museum secured £1.8m in funding to move to a derelict military bunker. It is now a buzzing community hub.
Rural museums such as Gairloch are leading the way, says Boal. The Highland Museum Forum recently transformed into Museums and Heritage Highlands (MHH), a more formal membership charity that will advocate for the region’s museums, and foster partnerships and collaborations with local businesses, tourist operators and other stakeholders.
The move came in response to a proposed 100% cut in the small but crucial core funding that Highlands museums receive from the council-run trust, Highlife Highland. “They finally decided that instead of waiting for cuts to arrive and weeping, they were going to be forward thinking and dynamic,” says Boal.
Helen Avenell, the charity’s development manager, says. “The heritage sector in the Highlands faces particular challenges and opportunities, and the creation of MHH is a response to the growing need for us to work collaboratively with additional support.”
Although there is increasing awareness that the sector needs to be more entrepreneurial and self-sufficient, public support will still play a crucial role in its future.
The Scottish government is about to launch its 10-year cultural strategy, which was delayed by the December general election, and some councils are putting culture at the heart of their strategies for the economy, place-making and health and wellbeing. There have been calls by some museum professionals for a wide-ranging review of non-national museums, similar to the Mendoza Review in England, that could identify areas of weakness and channel investment to where it is needed most.
Ultimately, a combination of individual creativity and entrepreneurialism, backed by government support and strategy, is needed to enable the sector to thrive in the long term.
Alistair Brown, policy manager, Museums Association
“We are working closely with our Scottish stakeholders group, with Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) and with the Scottish government to promote a better deal for Scottish museums. One of the key things that we are expecting soon is the Scottish Culture Strategy, which should set out the Scottish government’s ambition for museums in the next decade.”
“Advocating for the wide-reaching impact that museums and galleries have on our communities continues to be vital during these challenging times. MGS is meeting with local authority and arm’s-length external organisation museum services early this year, so that our advocacy and development work reflects their current circumstances. We will continue to support museums, to make the most powerful case possible to those making budget decisions. Our support for museums and galleries is available at any stage, and I urge any organisation that is experiencing difficulties to get in touch.”