Bristol Museum & Art Gallery faces a bill that could run into millions of pounds as a result of a sewage leak this summer

Is £125m for repairs simply papering over the cracks?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 119/11, 01.11.2019
The DCMS’s Cultural Investment Fund, which will help address the UK’s crumbling museum infrastructure, is very welcome, but what institutions need is core revenue funding to guarantee their long-term survival
There was some welcome news last month when the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) launched a £250m Cultural Investment Fund – which will include £125m funding over the next five years for repair and maintenance in regional museums, galleries 
and libraries. 

The cash comes not a moment too soon. Just weeks before the announcement, the heads of the Museums Association (MA), National Museum Directors’ Council and Art Fund wrote a joint letter to the Times calling for urgent investment in the UK’s “crumbling” civic museum infrastructure, which they said was putting collections at risk.  

“For a decade, museums have suffered swingeing cuts in local and central government funding, while coping with record visitor numbers,” the letter read. “We have delayed essential maintenance, patched or repaired infrastructure and rattled the tin for donations to fill the gap, but we are now at breaking point.

“Fires at the National Museum of Brazil, Notre Dame and Glasgow School of Art are terrible reminders of why we must invest to protect treasured collections. The risk is not just of catastrophe. In towns and cities, there is a quiet crisis. Leaking roofs and antiquated air-handling systems threaten the stability and preservation of collections.”

It concluded: “If the neglect continues, we risk losing what makes us special.”

The letter didn’t come out of the blue. Museum professionals have been raising serious concerns over the state of their infrastructure for years, particularly those in historic buildings with endless repair bills and huge overheads. In 2017, the Museum Taskforce, which was convened by the MA, and the Mendoza Review of the English museum sector, commissioned by the DCMS, both highlighted the urgent need for a capital fund for the repair of buildings. 

Fears realised

Recently, some of those fears have started to be realised. A sewage flood over the summer has left Bristol Museum & Art Gallery facing a bill likely to run into millions, on top of existing problems with damp and plumbing. The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in Canterbury, meanwhile, is undergoing £230,000 worth of repair work after pieces of masonry from its facade fell onto the street.

The situation is so dire in some areas that councils are considering closing museums down rather than paying the cost of repairs. The Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, which is run by Kirklees Council, needs an estimated £4.2m to make it fit for purpose, and has been in limbo for several years while the council decides on its future. One of the museum’s display galleries has been closed indefinitely because a glass ceiling is at risk of caving in. 

In Sheffield, the Graves Gallery is “limping along” following decades of underinvestment, says Kim Streets, the chief executive of Museums Sheffield. Inadequate heating means that visitors and staff are provided with blankets to take the edge off the chill. “The building requires major structural repairs to keep it safe and accessible,” she adds. 

Until last month, there was little indication that these concerns had been listened to in government circles. The breakthrough came about as a result of cross-sector collaboration, says the MA’s policy manager Alistair Brown: “It’s a good example of sector organisations working together on advocacy. The joint letter to the Times got a lot of media coverage and it did have an impact in terms of timing.”

With the government looking to loosen the fiscal purse strings ahead of a likely general election, the letter – backed by further discussions behind the scenes – ensured that ministers could be presented with a clearly defined, uncontroversial spending commitment that already had strong evidence of need behind it.

The timescale for the funding being rolled out is not yet clear, although the DCMS has confirmed that Arts Council England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England will play a role in distributing the money. Museums Journal understands that the maintenance funding will be open only to non-national institutions and will be focused particularly, but not exclusively, on civic museums. About £100m of the maintenance funding will be allocated to museums and the rest to libraries. 

Of the remainder of the £250m in overall funding, just under £20m a year will go to the Cultural Development Fund, which supports culture-led economic growth in towns and cities outside of London, and will now run for another five years. A further £18.5m has been allocated towards the £55m redevelopment of York’s National Railway Museum – a sum that more than makes up for its bid for £13.4m from the  National Lottery Heritage Fund being turned down last year – while £7m will go towards the UK City of Culture 2021 programme in Coventry. 

Strategic distribution

As welcome as this money is, the latter two allocations do not seem to have undergone an open bidding process, and there is concern about how strategic the DCMS will be in distributing the rest of the funds. Some fear that the cash will end up going to institutions that have the resources to put together a good bid, rather than the areas that need it most. 

“It needs to be strategic,” says the MA’s director, Sharon Heal. “It should be about seeing where the greatest need is, and it needs to be an open and transparent application process.” The MA is now focused on making the case for similar funding settlements in the devolved nations, she adds. 

“We need to think carefully about the places where we invest these resources,” says Jon Finch, the head of culture at Bristol City Council. He says the DCMS must take a broad view when assessing where funding should go, rather than considering awards in isolation. “There are towns across the country where major civic infrastructure has been underinvested in for years – so having some kind of matrix [that includes] conserving buildings themselves and the wider benefit to communities is critical.”

Finch adds that the application process should be simple, to avoid putting too much of a burden on resource-poor institutions, and should take into account the extensive evidence that already exists on areas of need. Overall, he feels positive about the message the investment sends: “The acknowledgement that the national government needs to work hand in hand with local government is fantastic.”

Note of caution

But – echoing many in the sector – Finch sounds a note of caution. “I suspect that when you look at the amount required across the country, this only deals with part of the challenge we face,” he says.

This point is crucial: the new investment may – literally – help to paper over some cracks, but it does not address the deep structural problems facing regional museums, whose funding has fallen by an average of 30% in the past five years in England alone. 

In the past few months, the impact of these cuts has been evident in many local authorities: Derbyshire County Council plans to replace paid staff with volunteers at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery; Stockport Council in Greater Manchester is consulting on the closure of several museum sites; and Essex County Council looks likely to close its entire museum development service. 

Money towards repairs and economic regeneration may be very welcome, but core revenue funding is what many museums need to safeguard their long-term survival.  “This will not begin to ameliorate the effects of years of austerity,” says Ian Lawley, an independent museum consultant.

“While the announcement may have been received with enthusiasm by supplicants only too grateful to receive a few crumbs from the table, we should not kid ourselves that it goes anywhere towards meeting the amount that is needed to repair and refurbish neglected buildings, address endemic problems such as orphaned collections or, above all, ensure the sector’s sustainability.”

He is also concerned about the lack of a clear strategy behind the plans. “Obviously, the devil will be in the detail, but we are still waiting for a properly resourced national strategy for museums, and I doubt that this money will be allocated in a strategic way,” adds Lawley. 

With Brexit, a general election and a UK-wide comprehensive spending review on the horizon, the next few months will be a crucial time for museum stakeholders to come together and ensure that their case is heard; as last month’s announcement shows, you never know when the right person might be listening.  

The first step in reversing decades of underinvestment

This support is critical. It is a valuable recognition of the difference our museums make every day in the heart of our communities, while working strategically with partners to support inward investment, and national and international partnerships. 

Museums are a bedrock in uncertain times. We await, with anticipation, the detail of this announcement and stand ready to help ensure it has the most meaningful impact. We hope it marks a first, but very significant, step forward in setting us on a road that will begin to reverse decades of underinvestment.

Maggie Appleton is the chief executive of the RAF Museum and the president of the MA

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