Extinction Rebellion protestors shut down Marble Arch in London in April. Cultural organisations came together to declare a climate emergency

Now that’s what you call a decade of turbulence

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 04.12.2019
From funding cuts leading to job losses and museum closures, and the evolving nature of working in the arts, to the growing debate on repatriation and the ever-increasing impact of social media, it’s been an eventful 10 years
How will we remember the 2010s? It’s been a seismic decade that, in the UK, started with the shock of austerity and ended in the still-unresolved mire of Brexit. 

Across the world, there has been unrest and revolution, a frightening rise in far-right populism and a growing sense of urgency about the climate crisis. In this era of turbulence, the very concept of what a museum is has radically transformed into something that is more activist, more democratic, more pluralistic; one that actively works to change people’s lives and tear down its own power structures.

But that ideal is tempered by the everyday reality for many institutions: a decade of funding cuts has gutted museum services across the UK, leaving many barely afloat. Some museums have shut for good. Huge amounts of expertise and talent have been lost, as stagnant wages and redundancies have squeezed the workforce. 

The nature of museum work itself has changed, with staff needing to think and work more commercially. There has been a drift from specialism to generalism. And there’s been a fast-paced revolution in the digital arena, with innovations such as immersive technology now part of the present. 

As the decade nears its end, we look back at some of the news covered in Museums Journal in the past 10 years. 

2010

May The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats form a coalition government. New culture secretary – the first of eight this decade – Jeremy Hunt announces plans to axe the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. 

June The Welsh government publishes its first national strategy for museums. The five-year strategy focuses on access, collections care and development, including the concept of a distributed national collection.

December News of cuts come thick and fast. Northern Ireland’s culture budget is slashed by £14.5m over four years, while Glasgow Life announces 300 redundancies. England’s national museums face a 15% cut to grant-in-aid, while Arts Council England’s funding falls by 29%.

2011

April Research by Labour MP Luciana Berger highlights the culture of unpaid internships at galleries and museums. Tate had the most, with 126 unpaid placements at its four sites. 

July Ipswich Museum becomes the latest victim in a Europe-wide spate of thefts by a gang stealing rhino horns. 

July The first Museums Association (MA) Cuts Survey reveals that a fifth of UK museums have lost at least 25% of their funding compared with the previous year. 

2012

January The inaugural 16 Major Partner Museums are revealed in Arts Council England’s first handout of Renaissance in the Regions settlements. Large areas of England are left without funding, with Museums Sheffield and museum services in the East Midlands among those that miss out. 

March The Scottish government publishes Going Further, its national strategy for museums. Museums Galleries Scotland becomes a development body to deliver the strategy, changing from a membership to subscription-based body.

April An upsurge in culture and heritage crime across the UK sees the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge suffer an £18m heist of oriental objects stolen to order. 

2013

March The MA launches Museums Change Lives, a vision for the future of museums. The campaign calls on the sector to develop practice that creates a social impact: creating better places to live and work; improving health and wellbeing; and inspiring engagement, reflection and debate. 

October The independent Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital Report lays bare the stark gulf in funding for culture in London compared with the rest of the UK. It finds that the UK capital received £86 in taxpayer and lottery funding for the arts per head of population in 2012-13, compared with £8 per head in the rest of the country. 

2014

June The Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library are instructed by the spoliation advisory panel to return works acquired during the Nazi era.

July Northampton’s council-run museum service is stripped of its Accreditation and barred from MA membership after selling an ancient Egyptian statue at auction for £15.8m, in breach of the MA’s Code of Ethics. 

August The first world war centenary is commemorated in a UK-wide lights-out event. Museums will play a key role in the four-year programme of events to mark the war. 

2015

June The issue of ethical sponsorship becomes more prominent after internal emails show that Shell expressed concerns about some of the content in the Science Museum’s exhibition on climate science. The museum does not renew a five-year deal with the oil giant later that year. 

November Lancashire council gives the go-ahead to close five museum sites. Three of the sites later reopen, staffed by volunteers. 

December The Scottish government slashes funding for national museums and galleries by 8.5%. Revenue spending for local councils is cut by 3.5%, putting pressure on local authority museum services. Neil MacGregor steps down as director of the British Museum after 13 years. 

2016

April The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 comes into law. The legislation requires public bodies to put wellbeing goals, such as tackling poverty, health inequalities and climate change, at the heart of their long-term planning. 

June In the UK’s referendum on the EU, 52% vote in favour of leaving. The result is met with dismay among many working in museums and galleries. It’s a wake-up call for the sector to do more to connect with leave-voting communities. 

December Kirklees Council closes Dewsbury Museum and the Red House Museum. Figures reveal that visitor numbers at England’s nationals have plummeted.

2017

February The MA publishes a manifesto for tolerance and inclusion following new US president Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration. 

October Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s The Past is Now, an exhibition that explores the city’s links to empire and slavery, opens. Criticism of the museum’s power structures by the exhibition’s co-curators accelerates the debate on decolonisation in the sector. 

November The Mendoza Report recommends a more strategic approach to museums in England. Its calls for closer cooperation between stakeholders are welcomed but there is disappointment that it doesn’t make a stronger case for increased investment. 

2018

April The Museum of English Rural Life goes viral on Twitter after posting a meme of a sheep captioned: “Look at this absolute unit.” The tweet highlights the growing impact of social media in museums. 

July The controversy over ethical sponsorship hits new heights as artists pull their work from the Design Museum in London in protest at the venue’s decision to host an event for an arms dealer. 

November The Sarr-Savoy report, commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron, is published. It recommends proactive restitution of cultural heritage taken from African countries during the colonial era. The report sparks a Europe-wide debate on repatriation.

2019

April Amid two weeks of protests in London by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, and the growing international school strike movement, cultural organisations come together to declare a climate emergency. Meanwhile, the MA publishes the Empowering Collections report, which advocates for “use-led” museum collections that are dynamic, relevant and empowering.

July The International Council of Museums publishes a new definition of museums that incorporates references to the climate crisis, human dignity and social justice. A rift emerges among the global museum community and a vote on the definition is postponed.

New museums

Hepworth Wakefield
Museum of Liverpool  
M Shed, Bristol
Riverside Museum, Glasgow
Titanic Belfast
Black Cultural Archives, London
Being Brunel, Bristol
V&A Dundee
Windermere Jetty Museum
Vagina Museum, London

Object of the decade

We asked Twitter what museums should collect to represent the 2010s. Here were the results:


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