Civic museums grapple with existential crisis - Museums Association

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Civic museums grapple with existential crisis

With several councils in England facing financial meltdown, there is an urgent need to create a new deal for local authority-funded institutions
The Museum of Making recently suffered severe flood damage. The museum is one of the venues run by Derby Museums Trust, which has seen its council funding fall significantly in recent years Derby Museums Trust

It's been just over a year since the English Civic Museums Network (ECMN) brought stakeholders together at the Museums Association Conference 2022 to broker a new deal for civic museums in light of the existential challenges they are facing.

Since then, the storm clouds that were gathering on the horizon have grown ever more foreboding. The news in September that the UK’s largest local authority, Birmingham City Council, had, in effect, declared itself bankrupt sent shivers down the collective spine of the civic museum sector.

Facing an £87m hole in its budget, the council has issued a section 114 notice preventing all but essential spending on core services, although existing commitments and contracts will be honoured.

Where that leaves Birmingham Museums, the trust that runs nine museum and heritage sites on behalf of the council, remains uncertain. The organisation has shot down media speculation that the city’s museums may be among the buildings up for grabs in a fire sale of council assets.

Museums Journal understands that while the bankruptcy notice was met with shock, the trust believes it will find a way through.

Birmingham is not the only council in England facing unprecedented financial challenges. Woking Borough Council, in Surrey, issued a 114 notice in June with a £1.2bn deficit.

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Since then, it has announced a sweeping package of cuts to local services, including arts and cultural development. There are fears that The Lightbox, the town’s art gallery, could close if it loses council funding.

Although not every local authority is on the brink of collapse, across England there is a general sense that things are falling apart at the seams: soaring inflation and rising demand for services, combined with years of inadequate funding from central government, have left the local government sector facing its most acute crisis in memory.

Whatever we do, cuts ensue

“There is immense frustration among civic museum leaders as to our current financial situation,” says Tony Butler, director of Derby Museums Trust.

“Overwhelmingly, in my view, our malaise is financial and due to a decade of austerity and short-term thinking, especially meted out to local councils.

In Derby Museums’ case, we delivered an £18m capital project during Covid that has won awards and was nominated for the Museum of the Year in 2022; we’ve built a £2m endowment from scratch since 2019; we’ve transformed our financial model from dependence on public sector funding to a mixed economy where public and contributed, private or commercial income is more or less equal.

“Over the past decade, we have been acknowledged for our innovative, human-centred and participatory approach to museum making. We have done all the right things – and no matter how positively we act, we continue to be penalised by cuts.”

For local authority-funded museums, the need to establish a sustainable ecology that can withstand external pressures has never been more urgent.

When it began discussions on its new deal last year, the ECMN outlined five priority areas in which change is needed to make the sector fit for purpose: governance, social policy, workforce, collections and commercialisation.

Although these priorities haven’t changed, the pace of the crisis has accelerated significantly, says Jon Finch, head of culture and visitor economy at Barnsley Museums, who is on the steering group for the new deal.

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“Things are becoming much tougher,” he says. “Birmingham demonstrates that local authorities are generally facing huge challenges.”

Having already come through more than a decade of funding cuts, civic museums have been left with little room to manoeuvre in response to the latest crisis.

Many have drastically reshaped and diversified their financial model over the past decade, putting a greater emphasis on commercial income. Funding from private trusts and foundations is being stretched ever more thinly.

'Things are becoming much tougher'
Jon Finch

The civic sector has become well versed in articulating museums’ vital social and economic value, aligning with policy and forming relationships with local politicians. And yet none of this has prevented cuts.

Privately, some museum leaders feel that the sector itself is suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome.

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“We keep telling ourselves that we need to change but really it’s the financial system that’s at fault,” says one senior figure.

Funders and policymakers continue to place the burden of finding a solution on civic museums themselves, and no one wants to point out the elephant in the room – that the crisis was borne from austerity, which was a political choice.

Along with organisational resilience, the physical infrastructure of museums has also suffered. Discrete funding streams are needed to address weaknesses that, with adequate investment, could have been prevented from developing in the first place.

Some also feel there is a residual lack of understanding at Arts Council England about the unique challenges that museums face compared with other arts sectors, particularly the disproportionate burden of caring for extensive collections and heritage buildings. 

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery Birmingham Museums Trust

The ECMN is ramping up discussions around a new deal for the sector and is shortly due to publish the outcome of these talks. There appears to be little appetite for a formal strategy among policymakers – instead, this work will form a statement of purpose for the sector.

With a brutal round of cuts expected in councils’ spring budgets, and a general election due in the next 12 months, the network hopes this will act as an important advocacy tool.

“It’s not a plea for new money,” says Finch – but it will underline the value civic museums can bring to solving critical issues at a local level.

“When museums are invested in appropriately, they can make a huge difference. But we are facing an existential challenge.”

Local authorities under acute financial strain

Birmingham

Birmingham City Council has issued a section 114 notice that it is unable to balance its books this year due to an £87m deficit. Birmingham Museums Trust received £5m funding per year from the council for 2023-24.

Woking

Woking Borough Council has declared bankruptcy and is planning a drastic package of cuts to arts and cultural provision as a result of a £1.2bn deficit.

Bristol

Bristol City Council has implemented a cut of more than 10% to Bristol museums and archive service this year, saying it is facing additional costs of £3.4bn just to maintain the same level of service.

Kirklees

Kirklees Council has warned there are “tough decisions to come” as it grapples with a £50m hole in its budget. The council closed two of its museums in 2016, due to austerity, and now manages four venues.

Croydon

In 2022, Croydon Council declared its third bankruptcy in two years. It has reduced museum activities as part of a £130m package of cuts.

Hampshire

Hampshire County Council is taking drastic measures in response to what it describes as a “financial meltdown”, including a proposed 50% cut to Hampshire Cultural Trust. The trust has warned that several venues may be forced to close as a result.

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