As the extent of the cost of living crisis became clear over the course of last year, there was much anxiety in the museum sector about the bleak winter that lay ahead.
The Museums Association (MA) took almost daily calls from museum directors despairing at the ruinous bills they were facing, with many fearing that the soaring rate of inflation posed more of a threat to the sector than the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a study by the heritage insurer Ecclesiastical at the end of 2022, nine out of 10 heritage sites surveyed said they were fighting for survival due to the cost of living crisis, and four in five said they would need to drastically cut costs to stay afloat. The survey of 500 leaders in UK heritage organisations found that 72% feared there would be a wave of closures if cost increases did not slow, while 44% had made redundancies and 42% had reduced the number of rooms that were heated and open to the public.
As we move into spring, however, it is clear that the sector is far from out of the woods. A fresh wave of local authority funding cuts is on the horizon, with Bury Art Museum in Greater Manchester among the institutions whose future council funding is uncertain.
“Museums are still facing significant funding challenges,” says MA director Sharon Heal. “Local authorities are having to make tough decisions about spending priorities, and this is putting museums and collections at risk throughout the UK. We need a strategic approach to funding from central government that puts local museums on a firm financial footing and secures their future beyond this current crisis.”
The crisis is not just affecting museums, however; its impact on communities has led to some experimental and innovative new practice across the sector. Building on their experiences during Covid, many museums have been quick to respond and find useful ways of supporting the communities that are most affected by soaring inflation rates.
The museum had its highest visitor figures for December in recent years
Councils have set up networks of “warm banks” across the UK, where people struggling with heating bills can stay for as long as they wish and meet others for a drink and a chat.
Museums have proven to be an ideal space for this, says Ros Westwood, manager of Derbyshire County Council Museums.
“With the museum being open during the winter with free admission, and people needing somewhere to go where there might be things to do, it seemed that Buxton Museum and Art Gallery was a good fit as a ‘warm space’,” she says.
“Being a Derbyshire County Council building, the museum can provide information and support should people ask for it, and with free wifi they can access other help via their phones. Staff didn’t expect people to come in and ask ‘where is the warm space’, but anticipated that they might consider the museum a warm, safe haven with attractive and interesting exhibitions to look at, and places to sit.”
To enable visitors to stay longer, the museum added more activities for families, including an under-fives area with chairs, toys and privacy for breastfeeding mothers, and a seasonal trail around the galleries for older children. The museum also bought a jigsaw puzzle and board games for visitors to play.
“All of these activities have been welcomed and used, and meant visits have been longer,” says Westwood. “The museum had its highest visitor figures for December in recent years. This cannot be directly attributed to the warm spaces initiative, but it will have helped, and the museum staff are seeing repeat visits.”
It’s not just heated spaces that museums have been providing through the winter. Before Christmas, Erewash Museum in Nottinghamshire (which is now threatened with its own council cuts) put out a call for a toy drive to help local families cover soaring costs over the festive season.
The response was overwhelming, says the museum’s co-manager, Simon Brown, with hundreds of people getting in touch via Facebook to offer toys and books. “People kept dropping more stuff off,” he says.
We’re a space people feel comfortable coming into, who might not feel as comfortable coming into a food bank
The museum collected toys over a two-week period and then opened its community space up for people to come and choose what they needed. Unlike food banks, which are means tested, the toys were offered on a “no-questions-asked” basis, enabling a wider range of people to benefit. “I spoke to a full-time nurse who was in a real pickle because she couldn’t use the food bank,” says Brown. “It’s been really emotional for me and my colleagues here.”
The museum’s main concern was that people would not feel comfortable to come in and collect the toys, but this was allayed on the first day when queues began forming out the door. The drive was helped by the museum’s close relationship with the community, says Brown, as well as the fact that many of its staff live within the area, understand local needs and are well practised in responding quickly to them.
“The museum is amazing in the way that it is embedded in the community,” says Brown. “We’re a space that people feel comfortable coming into, who might not feel as comfortable going to a food bank. There were also a lot of people who had never come before – it may be that they want to come and engage with the other things we do.”
With all of the donated toys gone within three days, the museum put out another call – this time asking for more specific donations, such as toys for older children. Anything left over was given to a local church to be distributed to families on Christmas Eve. The drive has led to new partnerships with the church and other community organisations, which Brown says is vital to help avoid the duplication of effort.
Note of caution
One pitfall that Brown warns museums to watch out for is that, with a largely middle-class, there may be a lack of understanding in the organisation as to what will be relevant and useful to people, and well-meaning measures could come across as inappropriate or patronising. “Just talk to visitors and identify the need before you do anything,” he advises.
In the same way as the pandemic did, the cost of living crisis has given museums an opportunity to demonstrate how essential they are as public spaces at the heart of their communities, in spite of the challenges they face themselves. But it’s clear that more funding support and strategic leadership will be needed to enable this vital work to continue in the winters to come.