Scotland's museums are at a tipping point - Museums Association

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Scotland’s museums are at a tipping point

After more than a decade of funding cuts, some services are struggling to finance education and outreach programmes. Jonathan Knott finds that the existing model may not be sustainable
Perth Museum will open its doors in spring 2024 after a £27m redevelopment

In many ways, museums in Glasgow, which are run by the charity Glasgow Life on behalf of the city council, are having a good year.

Highlights have included the redeveloped Burrell Collection winning the Art Fund Museum of the Year award, record visitor numbers for an exhibition of work by graffiti artist Banksy at the Gallery of Modern Art, and Glasgow becoming the first UK museum service to repatriate items to India.

But on the downside, it was also announced earlier this year that almost 40 posts are being lost from the city’s museum service as a result of funding cuts.

In 2024-25, Glasgow Life, which also manages the city’s sport services, will receive about £1.5m a year less from Glasgow City Council for its museums and collections service – although more than £500,000 of this is intended to be temporary, due to the closure of a venue for a capital project.

Reductions in programming

Duncan Dornan, Glasgow Life’s head of museums and collections, says the cut will mean losing 37 posts from a total of 309 in the museum service – although 19 of these had been left vacant due to an awareness of budget pressures.

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All of Glasgow Life’s museums – which include major venues such as Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and the Riverside Museum – will stay open, says Dornan, and the service is not considering reduced opening hours.

But he says the impact of the cuts will be seen through reductions in programming, display changes and temporary exhibitions. While his team will prioritise collections care and the communities most in need, “there is absolutely no denying that there will be a reduction in the level of service,” says Dornan.

'There is no denying that there will be a reduction in the level of service'
Duncan Dornan

He does not believe that museums have been particularly targeted for cuts, which he says are widespread across the board as a result of financial pressure on local authorities.

He argues that Glasgow still punches above its weight, providing about 18% of local authority investment in culture in Scotland in recent years, despite being home to only 11% of the country’s population.

Elsewhere in Scotland, many council-funded museums are facing considerable financial challenges. At High Life Highland – which runs three museums (including three discrete art gallery spaces) in the Highlands – principal cultural manager Judi Menabney says the cost of staff wages is growing.

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She says “funding is not reducing, but it’s not going up at a rate sufficient to cover the increasing costs”.

“Every civic museum would say the greatest cost by a mile is staffing,” says Menabney. It accounts for more than 70% of High Life Highland’s museums budget – and meeting this expense is leading to a diminished offering.

“We haven’t lost any museum staff and we haven’t reduced our opening hours,” she says. “But what’s reducing is the spend on refreshing displays, on education programmes, on classes, on outreach – on all those things that add value.

“Keeping the doors open at the current hours and paying the staff is starting to eat into what very little funding was left for doing other things. And at some point, there’ll be a tipping point, unless that’s addressed.”

Many Scottish councils run their cultural services via arm’s-length bodies. Despite this, the country’s civic museums are arguably more dependent on council funding than their counterparts in England.

There is no equivalent to Arts Council England offering additional public support, and legislation means that most cannot charge for admission.

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Dornan says even if entry charges were permitted, introducing them would not be a straightforward decision due to access and logistical issues. However, Glasgow is looking at “how we might attract income from those people who can most afford to pay”.

While the city’s museums already ask for voluntary donations in-venue, Dornan says new technology potentially allows new mechanisms to do that.

The glass conservatory of the Burrell Collection lit up in the evening
The redeveloped Burrell Collection won this year's Art Fund Museum of the Year award © Hufton+Crow
External funding

In general, Dornan believes arm’s-length bodies have the potential to “deliver significant external funding, which is not necessarily available to local authorities operating services directly”.

He adds that Glasgow Life has historically been successful in delivering commercial income, although this has yet to bounce back fully since the pandemic.

But other areas feel that operating at arm’s length makes limited practical difference. Ashleigh Hibbins, head of audiences and learning at Culture Perth and Kinross – which runs three museums and galleries, including one yet to open – says that the majority of the charity’s funding comes from the council.

“We’re doing a lot more donation asks and making it easier for people to donate,” they say, and the service is working on other fundraising schemes.

But Hibbins says this income is “a drop in the ocean compared with what it costs to run our buildings”. They add that “a lot of people still think that we’re the council” – which can be a challenge when seeking support from the public or funders.

Despite revenue budget constraints, some areas are making major investments in museum capital projects. Perth and Kinross Council has contributed £17m towards Perth Museum, which will cost £27m and is due to open in spring 2024.

In Renfrewshire, Paisley Museum is scheduled to reopen next year following a redevelopment that is costing £45m – roughly half of which has been contributed by Renfrewshire Council.

Both councils say the projects will help attract tens of thousands of visitors and boost the local economies. But such ventures do not remove the long-term pressure on cultural budgets, and may create additional dilemmas.

To open the new museum, as well as operating its main venue, Perth Art Gallery, the trust will have to significantly increase the number of front-of-house staff it employs, says Hibbins. 

The Heritage Fund and Renfrewshire Council are among the supporters of the £45m revamp of Paisley Museum
Unsustainable model

Dornan says there will come a point at which cuts may become “existential” for some smaller museum services.

Speaking about the sector in general, he says that with cuts having been ongoing for well over a decade, “there comes a point at which significant damage is done, and the existing model may not be sustainable”.

He argues that the disappearance of civic museums would be unacceptable. “I believe these services are vital for the long-term future of the country,” says Dornan. “We need to find a funding mechanism that will help to sustain them.”

Jonathan Knott is a freelance journalist

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