As the dust settles on December’s general election, thoughts are turning to what the cultural landscape will look like across England over the next five years. With an 80-seat majority, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has the freedom to reshape policy across the board, and rumour has been swirling in Westminster that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) may be in line for a major shake-up.
Although nothing had been confirmed as Museums Journal went to press, there is speculation that Nicky Morgan’s reappointment as culture secretary – in spite of her moving to the House of Lords after stepping down as an MP – is a strong hint that the role itself may be shortlived.
The Tories’ slimmed-down manifesto had no separate chapter on culture, and this has been read as a sign that plans are afoot to abolish the DCMS and split its brief across departments such as education, environment, and business and skills.
Many fear such a radical move would be a mistake. Although there has been a high turnover at the top of the DCMS – with eight culture secretaries over the past decade – it is the civil servants who run the show, and there is a feeling among museum professionals that they have an excellent understanding of the sector and its needs.
This can be seen in recent policy initiatives such as the £250m Cultural Investment Fund, some of which will support infrastructure repairs in museums and libraries, and the £19m programme to explore the potential of digital collections. There have also been place-based schemes such as the recently introduced Cultural Compacts – strategic cross-sector partnerships intended to build on the potential of culture to contribute to local agendas such as health and wellbeing, economic growth and sense of place.
It would be a shame if this brief were divided, says Tony Butler, the executive director of Derby Museums and a member of the English Civic Museums network. “It would split the purpose and benefits of museums and mean we are looking in two different directions,” he says.
“Being in one department helps look at the benefits museums provide – the economic arguments, cultural diplomacy, learning and skills – in a holistic way.”
Over and above the practicalities of carving up its agenda, abolishing the DCMS would send a deeper message about the government’s priorities. Having a standalone department shows the “intent of a country that takes culture seriously”, says Butler. “I hope it stays.”
Regardless of whether or not the DCMS continues in its present form, the newly elected government has given some indication of what it has in store for culture. Its manifesto promised to “maintain our support for the arts and culture, taking pride in the world-beating strengths of the UK’s creative industries and its unparalleled cultural heritage”.
The aforementioned Cultural Investment Fund will be the government’s flagship policy on culture – but the headline figure of £250m is somewhat misleading; of that sum, £18.5m has already been allocated to York’s National Railway Museum and £7m to Coventry for its UK City of Culture 2021 programme, leaving £224.5m to be distributed over five years.
More than half of this amount (£125m) will go into a maintenance fund for regional museums and libraries and the remainder – £19.9m a year – will be handed out through the existing Cultural Development Fund. The fund will also be used to support activities, traditions and events that bring communities together.
The Tories have also pledged to maintain support for tax reliefs for organisations in the creative sector and free entry to national museums. And after previous education secretaries sidelined creative subjects in recent years, the government has now indicated a change in approach, pledging to introduce a £111m arts premium to secondary schools “to fund enriching activities for all children”.
The education department announced an additional £4m on top of an £81m package last month for cultural education programmes in 2020-21, including heritage schools, visits to museums, and art and design clubs.
The government’s wider plans will also have implications for museums. A long-awaited comprehensive spending review is due this year, and Arts Council England (ACE) has already warned its National Portfolio Organisations that their grants may be revised if budgets are cut.
Meanwhile, the chancellor Sajid Javid recently announced that the National Living Wage will rise to £10.50 an hour by 2024 for workers over 21. This is welcome news for many but it will mean museums have to think carefully about how that affects their costs, as well as those of their suppliers and other local businesses, according to Kim Streets, the director of Museums Sheffield. “It will have big financial implications,” she says. “There’s a risk in terms of falling revenue funding – we will need to make sure the differentials are maintained.”
And in spite of some positive announcements for museums and culture, the impact of the past decade’s funding cuts is still being felt across the country. “Local authorities are still up against – austerity is not over,” says Streets, who is also a Museums Association board member. “There needs to be increased investment across the board. Rising costs and falling income mean many museums are going to be struggling.”
But the sector has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt, and Streets is optimistic. “There are some incredible opportunities on the horizon, no doubt,” she says. “It will be important for us to demonstrate the huge role that museums have – people need those inclusive, engaged public services.”
There are also hopes that the Conservatives’ success in the north of England and Midlands, where they won seats that they hadn’t held in more that a century, might lead to a more even distribution of funding, particularly for local authorities, as well as greater pressure on arm’s-length bodies such as ACE to focus on those areas.
Spectre of Brexit
But looming over the new parliament is the spectre of Brexit. The UK left the EU on 31 January and, in spite of its historical significance, there appeared to be little appetite among museums to mark the day – although many institutions will, of course, be collecting material related to it.
It’s no secret that the museum and culture sector was overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. But although the Conservative landslide put paid to hopes of a second referendum or softer Brexit, it has at least brought some certainty and closure to the issue. “It’s dominated everything for so long – now we have to turn our attention back to all those policies and concerns that have been marginalised,” says Streets.
Museums have had a long time to plan for the practical issues that the B-word will bring, and most feel relatively prepared to deal with new requirements in areas such as moving collections. But big challenges remain: more-stringent immigration rules for EU citizens could pose a problem for museums, and there are also fears about the work status – and morale – of existing staff from EU countries.
The wider ramifications of leaving the EU are another cause for concern. “We’re bracing ourselves for the fallout and what that means for the economy and business,” says Streets. “The impact it has on the economy is the big unknown.”
However, there are some positives: museums are well placed to address the deep divisions caused by the 2016 referendum – and most seem up for the challenge.
“Museums have unique qualities in this area,” says Butler. “If there’s one thing the country needs, it is reflection and deliberation – and museums have a really important role in that.”
The sector will also have a central role to play in the much-derided £120m “festival of Brexit” in 2022 (its actual title is the Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though the nickname has stuck). This has been a source of angst for museum professionals, with many fearing it could be too political or nationalistic, and may alienate audiences in remain-voting areas.
But the appointment of Martin Green, who ran Hull’s City of Culture festival in 2017 and the Cultural Olympiad programme, as director has given the sector more confidence in the idea of a UK-wide cultural event aimed at bringing people together.
“If the government moves forward, we will absolutely want to contribute and ensure it is a force for positivity,” says Butler. “If there’s a lot of momentum behind the event, it will enable us to work with all communities to find what we have in common. It won’t heal wounds but it might enable us to begin a period of reconciliation.”
Our museums can bring people together at a time when society is polarised
We would like to see a strategic lead from the government over the next five years. We know that museums are delivering against health, wellbeing and learning agendas, and making a positive difference working with their communities. At a time when society is polarised, museums can bring people together to reflect on identity and other critical issues. In order to do this, they need consistent and strategic investment.
I hope that the government can listen to what people who work in and with museums are saying, and make the case for museums to other departments such as health and education. Pockets of investment for infrastructure are hugely welcome but we know that local authorities are under intense pressure, and that inevitably means more cuts being passed on to museum services.
When society is divided, we need our fantastic local and national museums more than ever – they can unlock the past and where we have come from to help us understand the present and shape a positive future for all.
Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association