Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government

Local authority museums in England at risk as councils in crisis

Patrick Steel, 14.02.2018
Survey finds 80% of councils fear for their financial sustainability
Local authority museums in England, which are non-statutory, are at risk as 80% of councils fear for their financial stability, according to a recent survey.

The State of Local Government Finance Survey, published last week by the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) and the Municipal Journal, found that 95% of councils are planning to raise council tax, while two thirds will be forced to spend from their reserves.

Earlier this month Northamptonshire County Council was forced to issue a section 114 notice “in light of the severe financial challenge facing the authority and the significant risk that it will not be in a position to deliver a balanced budget by the end of the year”.

The notice means no new expenditure is permitted, with the exception of safeguarding vulnerable people and statutory services.

The council does not directly fund any museums, but a £20,000 a year grant to Museums Development East Midlands (MDEM) for its work with training and volunteer development for museums in the region will be cut from April.

“Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to enact an emergency budget order demonstrates the real pressures that local councils and authorities are experiencing," said a spokeswoman for Arts Council England, which is the main funder of MDEM.

“We do understand these are challenging times and all local authorities must set a budget that delivers and is sustainable in the longer term, but investing in arts and culture will have an important long term impact on a town’s people and economy.

“We do not anticipate any immediate impact on the arts council’s investment in Northamptonshire but once the implications of this order become clear in late February we will work closely with local stakeholders and partners to assess any next steps we might take in relation to funding in the area.”

An investigation published last week by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has identified financial problems at Surrey County Council, which is £25m short of its target for spending cuts in this financial year. It also faces a £105m gap over the next year - the equivalent of over 12% of its current budget - while its reserves have halved in the last five years.

Surrey Heritage, which oversees the Surrey History Centre, the county's heritage conservation team, and the Surrey County Archaeological Unit, has suffered in-year cuts of £85,000 from its £1m budget.

Local authority grant income from central government has fallen by £16bn since 2011, according to figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. And, says the LGIU, government plans for councils to transition from grant funding to relying on local business rate income by 2020 have been delayed, meaning “councils are facing the 2020 cliff-edge without a clear idea of how they will be funded afterwards or how much money they will have”.

“The MA has been warning for years that cuts to local authority funding will push some councils to the edge,” said Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy officer. “Some have now reached crisis point, and many more seem to be close behind. That’s hugely concerning for hundreds of museums that are wholly or partly reliant on local authority support.

“The current difficulties in local authority funding will only be exacerbated if the government fails to ensure a smooth transition to the 100% business rate retention model by 2020. We’re concerned that government resources are tied up in dealing with Brexit when this looming crisis should be at the very top of its to-do list.”


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02.03.2018, 17:01
Some readers may remember Southwark Council's Cuming Museum. It was perhaps better known for the fire the Town Hall building that housed the visitors galleries suffered in 2013 than for its wonderful collection. The fire came as a gift to the council, who otherwise would have had to cut the museum service eventually, with all the negative publicity that would have generated.

As it was, in spite of many reassurances to the local community, an expensive and pointless consultation exercise and architects' competition for a fictitious new museum building, the museum service was dismantled, the staff made redundant and the collection stored away in unsuitable storage facilities. Who knows if it will ever be revived?

It was highly probable that Southwark Council never intended to restore the Cuming Museum all along and the building that housed it will be quietly sold off to be developed into flats, after a suitable period of time has elapsed when the majority of Southwark residents have forgotten that such a thing ever existed. It would'nt come as any surprise if the more valuable objects have already been sold off.

The collection was amazing, far more interesting than the average local authority history museum. As with Malcolm Watkins' remarks below, it was full of rarities and unstudied treasures, now probably lost forever. It had so much potential for research. It was a wonderful resource for the community and a valuable asset in terms of monetary value. The council's management were given all the right information to do the right thing in terms of their responsibilities to the collection, but they chose to ignore it.

The only threat or sanction that could be invoked at the time was that of losing Accredited status, which was hardly going to be of any concern to the council management if they intended to get rid of the museum all along.
08.03.2018, 11:51
'Anonymous' seems to know more about the future of Southwark's museum service and the nefarious intentions of Southwark Council than I do - I live in Southwark, and I'm a member of a local committee that is keenly interested in the future of the Cuming Museum and its collections. I'm nowhere near as pessimistic as he/she is.

Unfortunately the actual Curator (not as far as I know made redundant? see is probably prohibited by her local authority terms of service from commenting on the Council's policy. And that may also explain Malcolm Watkins' complaint of a lack of comment from museum professionals. Those directly involved are 1: too busy fighting the local issue; 2: prohibited from commenting outside the Council; 3: even when made redundant are probably forced to sign a confidentiality clause. Those not affected seem to too busy wittering on about 'inclusivity' or whatever to take any interest in the fate of local authority museums, their staff and their collections.

And as for the Museums Association? Encouraged to see they're launching a 'collections project' with a seminar - but oh dear, what is the seminar discussing? 'Topics that will be discussed include repatriation, rationalisation, decolonising museums and conflict resolution.' What about 'survival of threatened collections'? What about 'ensuring collections are looked after by professional staff'? What about (even) 'supporting staff who actually know something about the objects in their care'?

Does the Museums Association actually know how many local authority museums have been closed (its map seems to be out of date) and how many are under immediate threat? One museum in which I have a personal historical interest (and one with a collection even more outstanding than that of the Cuming Museum) is facing the total withdrawal of its local authority funding - that, the local campaign to preserve it, and the HLF funding it has received for its 'resilience project', seem (as far as I can see) not even to have been thought significant enough to be reported in the Museums Journal.

Geraldine Kendall
Staff Writer and Researcher, Museums Association
12.03.2018, 12:26
Hi John
We are working on updating the closure map as soon as possible and we do always try to report on any museum that's facing significant cuts or at risk of closure. If you like, please email me the details of the museum you're referring to and we'll look into it -

Malcolm J Watkins
Director, Heritage Matters
03.03.2018, 09:08
Some of us were skeptical about the potential reopening in the beginning. Two things worry me. That collection is of world-class importance from my recollections of encountering elements in my studies, so what management and curation is being provided?
And why, oh why, is there so little comment from fellow professionals on curatorial issues, when political (in the broadest sense) issues seem to be far more commented?
We are not curators to change the world. We are curators to preserve the evidence of the world and our place in it. If the MA and its membership would simply return to basics, we might gain a lot more respect and more cross-spectrum support.
Janet Ulph
Professor, University of Leicester
15.02.2018, 16:19
I have suggested to the Law Commission that the law could be changed so that all local authority museum collections in England and Wales enjoyed charitable status (which would given the collections protection and should mean that local authority museums would receive more donations and could save on taxes such as council tax).
The Law Commission will be looking at museum collections. It is part of the Thirteenth Programme of Law Reform 2017 (Law Com, No 377).
But it will take time and, even if my suggestion was accepted, the tax savings for local authorities may not be significant. It is frustrating as this financial crisis is happening now.
Malcolm J Watkins
Director, Heritage Matters
15.02.2018, 12:03
Years ago I was involved in arguments with colleagues about the value of a nationalised museums service. At the time I was unenthusiastic. Today I am less sure. Because museums are non-statutory they fail to gain even the slight protection that is afforded to libraries and archives. It seems that written stuff is valued, but man-made or natural stuff is not.
The debate really needs to begin to focus on the collections. What is to be done to protect them if the staffing and even the displays are gone? Should there be the establishment of teams of regional peripatetic curators to oversee the collection undervalued by local bodies? Trusts are not the answer, and never were. They work to an extent when there is a wealthy and powerful elite (and I am not condemning them) for whom the status of trustee is deemed valuable but for most local areas such people are unavailable.
I gave a talk last night on a ceramic doll in the museums at Gloucester. For seventy years it was incorrectly identified and languished unnoticed in the stores, but due to a former colleague's curiosity and my researches that figurine can now be recognised as one of only three intact examples (as far as I can tell) of a type made in Raeren in Belgium in the time of the Tudors. It is the only complete example in the UK, I think.
Such rarities are still lurking in stores and we owe the finders and past generations the effort to protect them from loss during this period of threat. I had high hopes for digital collection records online, but this is now unlikely for most museums because nobody is available to do the work, and the resources to maintain the sites don't exist.
Arguably the really devastating point here though is that the comments on stories such as this are few and far between. Is it because my successors in the museums world don't really care any more?