Norwich Castle: organisations such as Norfolk Museums Service are reinventing themselves by aligning their work with local authority priorities © Norfolk County Council

Civic museums facing crisis

Caroline Parry, Issue 119/03, 01.03.2019
As the government’s spending package reveals a £3.1bn gap for councils, museum funded by local authorities are looking at new ways of working. By Caroline Parry
With concerns growing about the viability of some local authorities as central government funding continues to dwindle, the tipping point may have come for some council-funded museums.

In January, the government’s 2019-20 spending package laid bare the reality of the coming year. Councils face an overall funding gap of £3.1bn, with many seeing a complete cut in their revenue support grant.

While the government has yet to indicate how it plans to tackle the next Spending Review, due this year, the Local Government Association (LGA), a membership body representing councils in England and Wales, predicts a £8bn black hole by 2025. With spiralling demands for social care services, it is expected that many non-statutory services, such as museums, will be lost.

According to a National Audit Office report into the financial sustainability of local authorities published last year, spending on cultural and related services fell by 34.9% between 2010-11 and 2016-17.

Change needed

Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the Liberal Democrats leader of Portsmouth City Council, dismisses suggestions that this is the death of civic museums, but says the situation needs to change.

“Councils face an £8bn funding gap by 2025, and our core cultural services like libraries and museums will come under increasing financial pressure unless local government finance is put on a sustainable footing,” says Vernon-Jackson, who is also the chair of the Culture, Tourism and Sport Board at the LGA. 

“It would be wrong to suggest it is going to be easy, but things cannot carry on in the same way,” Vernon-Jackson says. “Museums will have to find a different route to survive, but there may be casualties across the sector.”

For Peter Latchford, the chief executive of consultancy Black Radley and author of The Future of Civic Museums: A Think Piece, which was published last year, the cut in funding is one aspect of a broader set of challenges. He cites governance inflexibility, the sector’s underdeveloped collective view of itself as a movement, and unhelpful defensiveness regarding collections and competition as significant issues.

“More discussion needs to take place in the sector about how it can help with the many existential issues we face in today’s society, such as the environment, extremism and whether democracy works – rather than just focusing on how to survive another year,” says Latchford.

He adds that museums could benefit from the slow shift in national policy to preventative measures, such as social prescribing. “If museums see themselves as guardians of the past, rather than agents of social reform, which is where their roots lie, they will go by the wayside.”

Local communities

While Latchford admits good work is occurring across what is a varied sector, he calls for more collaboration, particularly between the bigger institutions; the introduction of a single method of collecting data; and for the sector to take the lead on bolder initiatives.

Norfolk Museums Service is noted in the county’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy for being “strongly embedded” in its local communities, and for its provision of ongoing support for health and wellbeing priorities through its public programmes.

Steve Miller, the director of the museum service, is clear that it has developed its own strategy to align with the local authority’s health and wellbeing agenda. He admits, however, that the service had to work hard to make its ambition to help other council departments understood.

“We had to knock very loudly and repeatedly on the door because our colleagues in other departments have challenges of their own,” says Miller. “We had to be polite and persistent in offering affordable ways to help.”

New funding sources

By persuading other council departments to work with the museum service on initiatives, it has been able to pull in external funding. This has come from core funding sources such as Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, but also from non-traditional sources such as enterprise and public health bodies.

Miller hopes to attract more funding from these new sources, as the museum service continues to align with local authority priorities. He says that these activities are not to the detriment of its core mission or collection, which, for example, is key to its work with dementia patients and refugees.

“It is really tough, as traditional funding streams are changing,” says Miller. “Museums are still in a privileged position of being able to be so many things to so many people. It doesn’t mean we have to sell our souls to chase funding. But we have to make ourselves indispensable.”

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