The end of an era: what have Tony Blair and New Labour done for museums? - Museums Association

The end of an era: what have Tony Blair and New Labour done for museums?

Hopes were high among most people in the arts when New Labour came to power ten years ago. The preceding 18 years had generally been regarded as being a tough period for the arts. John Holden, the head of cultural policy at thinktank Demos, said of the landscape of the time: 'It was a very demoralised sector - the whole of the philosophy and rhetoric of government was very anti the arts.'
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Sharon Heal
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Then in swept New Labour on a manifesto that included scrapping admission charges for national museums; a review of the Museums and Galleries Commission; a shake-up at the Department for National Heritage; and a commitment to improving access for all.

Of course it wasn't long before some people were saying the honeymoon was over. Ministers wobbled about scrapping admission charges just months after Labour was elected and it wasn't until three years later in December 2001 that charges were finally ditched.

Despite the delay, free admission has generally been judged to be a success and comes pretty near the top of most people in museums' lists of 'things that have been good about the past ten years'.

Mark Taylor, the director of the Museums Association, said that the Labour government has been 'hugely' better than previous administrations.

'This government understands much better what museums and culture do. Funding is substantially better than it was and Renaissance in the Regions has gone some way to righting the wrongs of generations of decline in local authority museums.'

The Renaissance programme, although not a manifesto commitment, has been a welcome extra. There has been friction about the amount of money put in and its phased implementation, but it has brought national government funding directly to regional museums for the first time. The hope now is that it won't be seen as a 'project' with a finite timescale.

Of course not everything in the garden is rosy: the lack of cash for acquisitions is a constant worry and the Goodison tax review, which might have gone some way towards helping, was commissioned by the government and then ignored.

Alan Borg, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, argues that museums survive despite government and he points to the recent Olympic raid on the lottery as a concern. 'The past decade has been good to museums, largely because of the lottery but that now appears to be coming to an end.'

He is also unenthusiastic about what he describes as 'administrative interference' in the running of museums. 'This government has tended to destroy the arms-length principle and tried to micro-manage national museums,' he says.

This 'interference' is probably one of the least favourite aspects of the past ten years. Taylor admits the government has 'gone too far on the balance between museums and culture being good in-and-of-themselves and an instrumentalist agenda'. Many would agree that there is now far too much box ticking and measuring.

One of the big changes over the past ten years has been that many of the bodies that existed when Labour came to power are now unrecognisable. In 1997 the Department for National Heritage was scrapped and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was born. Ten years later the verdict is still out.

The department was recently found wanting in a Capability Review by the Cabinet Office.

Among other things it said that the department was too reactive and responded to issues rather than set agendas; was not regarded as sufficiently connected or influential with other government departments; and that there was a perception that it was a funding 'post-box' between the Treasury and sponsored bodies. Its overall capability was ranked tenth out of the 12 departments reviewed.

In 2000 the Museums and Galleries Commission, which was considered to be not strategic enough, was replaced by Resource (it subsequently became the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

After many incarnations and changes of staff there is still scepticism about its efficacy; it is hoped that the recent appointment of a head of museum policy will provide a strong voice for museums within the agency and beyond.

There is a strong feeling that there has been a lack of strategic direction from the DCMS and the MLA over the past ten years. This is evident in the amount of time that it has taken the consultation on Understanding the Future to reach its conclusion (a national strategy for museums is now promised for the beginning of next year).

As for the future, the review of the DCMS has meant it is now preparing for a major restructure next year. But this may be overtaken by events as there are strong rumours that the DCMS could be split up and its responsibilities subsumed by other departments under a Brown administration.

If, as has been suggested, culture ends up alongside education, although there would be a lot more money swilling around, it could have the unfortunate effect of making culture a small fish in a very large pond.

In the short term the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn is a more pressing concern. If Renaissance doesn't get the funding it needs and national museums are squeezed further, the final balance sheet for Labour achievements in the arts might not be quite as positive as it now sounds.

Sharon Heal

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