Civic museums seek to take control of their own destiny
Civic museums in the UK have always been vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the political current. Established during the Victorian “education for all” era, years of inadequate funding meant that, by the end of the 20th century, many were in a neglected state.
Programmes such as England’s 2001 Renaissance in the Regions aimed to revive the fortunes of regional museums by creating a new funding structure backed by central government that would stand the test of time. The picture changed again in 2011 when Arts Council England assumed responsibility for museums in England.
Museum Conversations: A new deal for museums
MA members are invited to attend a free webinar on 9 March to delve deeper into a radical reimagining of the sector. The webinar will be hosted by the English Civic Museums Network in partnership with the MA.
Then came a decade of austerity, when cuts depleted national funding pots and local authority investment in museums fell 27% across the UK.
In the decade that followed, many civic institutions went down a more independent, commercial route – a foundation that proved less than solid when Covid-19 hit.
Now with soaring bills, new spending cuts on the horizon and major shifts in audience behaviour, civic museums are yet again facing an existential crisis.
This time around, sector leaders are determined to take the future into their own hands. In a session at the Museums Association’s (MA) conference in November last year, which was organised by the English Civic Museums Network (ECMN) but had a UK-wide remit, stakeholders convened with the aim of forging a “new deal” for civic museums.
Five leaders from local authority services and trusts presented their thoughts on what this deal might look like. Over the next year, they will flesh out their ideas, before developing a more concrete vision of the future they’d like to see for civic museums.
Although government investment remains essential, the organisers of the session are clear that the current crisis cannot just be addressed by asking for more public money. As local authorities face another funding squeeze, even councillors who recognise the value of museums may not be able to find any spare change after covering statutory services. Local government leaders in England have already warned that they’ll have no choice but to implement signi cant cuts to services under the latest austerity measures.
“We need new operational models for civic museums rather than face death by a thousand cuts,” the head of culture at Gloucester City Council, Philip Walker, told delegates at the MA conference. In his provocation, that “councils should not be running museums in future”, he cited Gloucester City Council, which was forced to offload Gloucester Life Museum in 2021 due to a budget shortfall.
Rather than mothball the institution, the council sold the museum’s historic Tudor building to Gloucester Civic Trust for £1. The facility, now called The Folk, operates as a community events and heritage venue run mostly by volunteers. It is no longer a museum in the traditional sense, but offers guided tours and plans to host exhibitions and festivals. It’s a pragmatic compromise – though not everyone at the MA conference was convinced.
Questions were asked about whether the public benefit principle of civic museums would be lost without local authority backing, as well as about how the long-term care of collections would work, and whether museums would need to let go of professional standards such as Accreditation if they go down this route. There was also concern about the impact that moving to a volunteer-led model could have on an already thinly stretched and underpaid museum workforce.
Andrew Mackay, the director of Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum & Gallery Trust, asked whether museums could find a middle ground between being open, community spaces and charging visitor fees, as the current model is “broken and unsustainable”.
Although Mackay said he believes in free admission, he questioned whether it was a viable option for many and asked why institutions should feel guilty about charging when a £15 annual museum ticket would scarcely cover a single trip to the cinema or theatre.
“Is it because we see ourselves as education rather than entertainment?” he asked. Mackay suggested museums think differently about how they are perceived – and perhaps take radical measures such as replacing permanent galleries with more dynamic temporary exhibition programmes.
As an example of finding the middle ground, Mackay cited Tullie House’s plans to acquire several properties adjacent to the museum and, with funding from the government’s Towns Fund, develop a cafe-bar that will attract new audiences on to the museum premises and diversify its income streams.
“How do we work with our audiences to say ‘we’re not static’?” says Mackay, speaking to Museums Journal. “Younger audiences are motivated by experiences. We do need to take audiences with us, but also to be honest and open about the debate we want to have.”
Victoria Hollows, the chief executive of OneRen, the trust that runs Renfrewshire’s museum service, said civic museums need to challenge outdated hierarchies and sell themselves as part of a wider local authority partnership.
“It’s not good enough to say we’ve just got to be able to keep the lights on,” she told conference. “Museums’ critically important work with communities to deliver on social justice is at risk. Who else cares enough about what we’re doing? We need a good PR job – as a sector, we’re not framing ourselves powerfully enough.”
Civic museums are also concerned about the climate crisis. The chief executive of Museums Northumberland, Rowan Brown, proposed the question, “is it sustainable to care for collections for posterity in the face of the climate crisis?”, asking delegates to consider what an environmentally sustainable approach to collections management might look like.
Meanwhile, Paul Sapwell, the chief executive of Hampshire Cultural Trust, asked why the sector does not allocate resources to embed training opportunities for staff and new pathways into museum careers, particularly for people in front-of-house roles. He acknowledged that this meant redistributing funding from other areas, but warned that unless the sector diversifies its workforce, museums will continue along a route of “talking to ourselves, groupthink and a terminal decline in our relevance”.
Jon Finch, ECMN member and head of culture and visitor economy at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, who helped organise the session, says: “There is no straightforward solution – but we want to have a discussion. If there was a set of easy answers, we would have identified them by now.”
He acknowledges that there are different views about how we best move forward, but says civic museums have a “collective responsibility to move towards a sustainable future”.
Finch says: “We want to start a conversation and find the best way to survive and thrive in what is going to be a challenging environment – but one in which the need for museums is stronger than ever.”
Honesty is the best policy
Our research in 2021 outlined the big fall in local authority funding that museums have suffered over the past decade or more. The systematic underfunding of local authorities, combined with a recession and the cost-of-living crisis, means that many local museums are facing a real crisis over the next few years.
The Museums Association (MA) will fully support the English Civic Museums Network (ECMN) and colleagues across the UK in exploring the idea of a new deal for museums – and this means having a no-holds-barred conversation about the future of the sector.
We will have to be honest about the pros and cons of charging and free entry; discuss what multi-use and multi-purpose sites look like; redefine what a museum worker is and who can be a leader; explore what good governance is; and, most importantly, think first about public and communities, minimising our climate impact and not getting stuck on the idea that we have to preserve everything for ever.
Many of our much-loved local museums are facing a tough future, and over the next year, the MA will work with the ECMN and others to have these challenging conversations. We will make the strongest case for the value of our sector to politicians and stakeholders.
Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association