It’s an understatement to say that the past few years have been challenging for Northern Ireland’s museum sector, where the absence of a power-sharing government has exacerbated the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing impact of Brexit.
In the spring, the Department for Communities, which sponsors National Museums NI and supports the wider sector via project funding streams, said it would be making sweeping budget cuts to deal with a shortfall of more than £170m in its resource and capital spend.
In its 2023-24 budget, the department is proposing 5% cuts to its arm’s-length bodies, including National Museums NI, the Northern Ireland Museum Council and Arts Council NI, as well as further cuts to its capital spending programme.
Arts Council NI, which funds creative practitioners and several art galleries, spoke out earlier this year to warn about the impact of the cuts, saying it would have to reduce the annual funding it offers by £1.3m, or 10%.
The budget has been heavily criticised, with Belfast cultural workers staging a protest in April. With Stormont not in session, there is concern that budgetary decisions lack democratic scrutiny and ministerial oversight.
Northern Ireland’s culture sector already lags significantly behind neighbouring jurisdictions in terms of funding, with £4.72 currently allocated per head of the population, compared with £10.51 in Wales and £22.50 in the Republic of Ireland.
The storm over the budget is emblematic of the deep-seated issues caused by the lack of stable political leadership. This year saw the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which established the ground-breaking model of unity government.
But the high-profile celebrations were tempered by the fact that this model no longer appears to be delivering the stability that was hoped for: the Stormont assembly has not sat since Sinn Féin’s election victory in May 2022 and has been suspended for much of the past six years.
This has led to a sense of paralysis for the museum sector. Several long-awaited capital projects have stalled as a result of departmental delays, including Derry-Londonderry on the North Atlantic (DNA), a major maritime museum being created in the old hospital building, which will house collections currently on display at the city’s Tower Museum.
Originally slated to open in 2016, the project is now not expected to be ready until 2025.
Lack of strategy
While many cultural and heritage institutions continue to deliver innovative and impactful work, there is a widespread feeling that there is an overarching lack of strategy, with the sector over-reliant on short-term projects and unable to build a legacy.
Initiatives such as Reimagine, Remake, Replay, which won a Museums Change Lives Award in 2020 for its work connecting young people with heritage via technology, have ended, and future projects are in doubt due to the Department for Communities cuts.
Brexit has also cut off many funding streams: Northern Ireland benefited significantly from EU schemes such as Creative Europe, as well as bespoke programmes to support the peace process and community cohesion. In spite of earlier promises, little has been replaced by the UK government.
At a local level, many councils forecast significant cuts this year, leaving some local authority museums fearing for their future. Flame Gasworks Museum in Carrickfergus, which was partially council-funded, closed last year, saying its funding model was no longer sustainable.
The sector is also facing issues with workforce recruitment and retention. Brexit has led to issues across the UK, but in Northern Ireland, this is exacerbated by the culture of short-termism; when institutions find and train talented workers, they frequently move on from the organisation – and often the sector – when projects come to an end.
Low pay, meanwhile, has seen many public sector museum workers strike on numerous occasions this year, including a walkout at National Museums NI sites on one of the organisation’s busiest days, St Patrick’s Day.
Cause for optimism
In spite of these problems, there is optimism that change is coming. Power sharing is expected to resume in September, and work has been under way across the sector to develop a draft Culture, Arts and Heritage Strategy ready for the new culture minister to review as soon as business resumes in Stormont. Strategies for tourism and education are also in development, which should bring a clearer sense of purpose.
These past few years haven’t been entirely lost. The collaborative work that took place across the museum and heritage sector to mark Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries (2012-2022) has left a lasting legacy in terms of cross-border connections and new practice for addressing sensitive and contested histories.
A new network funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, Museums and Conflict Legacy, has been set up by partners led by the Museum of Free Derry to share learning and practice in this area, bringing individuals from all communities together in a way that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
Several other landmark capital projects are in the pipeline, in addition to the DNA Museum. National Museums NI’s Ulster Folk Museum will undergo a £50m development to “reawaken” it with a focus on environmental sustainability. A further £10m has been secured to create a Police Museum in east Belfast.
Derry-Londonderry is firmly on the tourism map thanks to the global success of Derry Girls, with an immersive exhibition on the sitcom now open at the Tower Museum until July 2024. Funding has also been confirmed for a new Bogside Peace Process Museum, which will be built in an extension of Derry’s Gasyard Centre.
It’s clear that there is no shortage of talent, ambition and imagination in Northern Ireland’s museum and heritage sector. Now it just needs to be matched by leadership in government.
'We need to play the long game'
Examples of great leadership and creativity in the museum sector are evident, with the museum workforce demonstrating ambition for their institutions; commitment to their practice, and vision for new ways of engaging with communities.
Although these are vital qualities, museums are sensitive to the wider cultural and economic contexts in which they operate. The last decade has seen multiple crises impacting the growth of the sector.
The recent pandemic is the obvious one, but the potential of Northern Ireland is being dampened by repeated failures in Stormont. For four of the past six years Northern Ireland has lacked the leadership, decision-making, and scrutiny associated with devolved parliament and this failure is impacting education, health, and culture.
Recently, the Ulster University project Museums, Crisis and Covid-19 found evidence of a creative workforce devising impactful projects with limited and unstable budgets.
Many of our most notable projects have only been possible because of grant funding, such as Global Voices, Local Choices (Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund), Making the Future (Peace IV), and Collecting Troubles and Beyond (National Lottery Heritage Fund).
If museums did not have to compete for grant funding and were instead resourced, with a wellbeing and learning focus, they could make significant impacts on those priorities.
In the meantime, we lack open data about how the sector is funded, which compromises any case we can make for the value and impact of museums that could underpin a meaningful future museum policy.
The short-term crisis management of the past decade is no substitute for resourced and research-led long-term planning.