All eyes on number 10 - Museums Association

All eyes on number 10

Will Nadine Dorries keep her pledge to make real change? Geraldine Kendall Adams investigates
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Nadine Dorries has made it clear that her main objective is to improve social mobility into what is still a middle-class sector

Since the Conservative party came to office in 2010, the appearance of a new culture secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has become almost an annual tradition. Given the rate of turnover, the 10th incumbent, Nadine Dorries, may already be nearing the halfway point of her term. Nevertheless, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire is determined to make her mark in her first cabinet position.

Dorries, a bestselling author and former contestant on the I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! TV show, has a higher profile than any recent culture secretary and her promotion to the role last September attracted more than the usual attention given to the so-called “ministry of fun”. She was hailed by some as the latest salvo in the government’s manufactured culture war, with the Daily Mail claiming she had landed the role “to fight the woke warriors” at the DCMS.

A prolific social media user known for her outspoken views, Dorries won’t shy away from a fight. But insiders say she has less appetite for endless tussles over contested issues than her predecessor Oliver Dowden, who will be remembered for his heavy-handed edicts warning cultural institutions to fall in line with the government, or else.

Fighting shy

As Dorries herself said recently, she does not plan “to charge out on a culture war battle”; it is unclear whether key Dowden initiatives – such as the expected guidelines for the museum and heritage sectors on complying with the government’s blunt force “retain and explain” policy – will see the light of day.

In her early meetings with stakeholders, the culture secretary made clear that her primary mission will be on improving social mobility in what remains a stubbornly middle-class sector. Dorries often refers to her upbringing in a deprived part of Liverpool and has described the sceptical reaction to her appointment as “total, pure left-wing snobbery”.

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At the 2021 Conservative party conference, she talked about how social mobility had diminished since her youth. “People from my background wrote books, wrote theatre plays and did really well,” she said. “If you want to do that today, you need a double-barrelled name and to have gone to a private or public school. What infuriated me was all those people who were criticising me were those people – people who’d found themselves where they were through a privileged background, and through nepotism and a whole host of other reasons.”

This has informed her priorities as culture secretary. “I want in the arts and culture and the BBC, and other organisations and journalism, for there to be a pathway from my background, from my working-class roots, into that sector, because that pathway has disappeared,” she said.

Dorries may have lofty ambitions but she won’t have much room for manoeuvre. Key budget decisions for the next few years were set out in October’s spending review (see p4), and there is little to spare for pet ministerial projects. Dorries will need to persuade stakeholders that her priorities are on the agenda for funding that already exists.

The culture secretary will also be busy with the unenviable task of navigating the sectors through the post-Covid recovery. The DCMS recently released the latest tranche of £107m in emergency funding to 925 arts and cultural organisations – bringing the amount it has spent on culture during the pandemic close to £2bn.

Crucial period

So far, the museum sector has weathered the crisis better than feared, but with new restrictions looking likely as Museums Journal went
to press, and emergency funding coming to an end, the next few months could prove the treacherous. Visitor figures are unlikely to recover for years and self-generated income has plummeted. National institutions could face a particularly tough time, having lost most of the overseas visitors on which they depended to top-up their budgets.

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Civic institutions that rely on local authority funding are far from being out of the woods either, as councils face huge funding pressures to deal with the ongoing fallout from Covid. This could compound the far-reaching impact that the austerity measures of the 2010s had on the sector; research recently commissioned by the Museums Association (MA) found that local authority spend on museums fell 34% in real terms between 2010 and 2020. The Comprehensive Spending Review included an uplift in local authority funding, but it remains to be seen whether that will trickle down to museums.

Meanwhile, the museum workforce has been hollowed out of expertise and capacity. By the end of 2021, the MA had recorded 4,780 Covid-related redundancies – a huge number in a small sector. Taking into account freelancers and contract workers, the true figure
is likely to be much higher. Staff with years of experience and knowledge were laid off at short notice with no succession planning, and many have left the sector.

Early on in the pandemic, the DCMS put together a taskforce for cultural recovery and renewal headed by Neil Mendoza, the author of the 2017 review of museums in England.

The commission produced a report last year, Boundless Creativity, hailing cultural institutions’ innovation during lockdown and highlighting potential paths to recovery. But since then the taskforce appears to have largely “fizzled out”, says one insider, with few updates on its work in recent months.

Despite the challenges ahead, this recovery period offers a unique opportunity for an ambitious culture secretary such as Dorries to leave her stamp on the sector. As she told the Conservative party conference last year, “real change has to happen, and that’s what I’m here to make sure does happen” – at least until the next reshuffle.

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