News analysis: Museums’ future under ACE

Arts council takeover of MLA functions has been confirmed but the details are sketchy
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Rebecca Atkinson

Now that Arts Council England (ACE) has finally confirmed it will take over most of the functions of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) when the latter is abolished in April 2012, the detail everyone is waiting for is what the new Renaissance in the Regions scheme will look like.

Over the past 18 months, following the 2009 Renaissance Review, the MLA has developed a new model that will see the end of the hub museums and the introduction of a smaller number of core museums. There are also plans for a new challenge fund and a national network for museum development.

While this change will clearly have a profound impact on many regional museums, details are thin on the ground. The department for culture has asked ACE and the MLA to work together to move things forward, but exactly what the new Renaissance will look like, and how it will work, is still up in the air.

Timetable for change

A timetable for the transfer of MLA functions to ACE and the criteria for core museums was to be published before the end of 2010, but is now expected in the first quarter of this year. A spokeswoman for ACE said that discussions regarding Renaissance have been prioritised as there is a “need for clarity”.

She added: “ACE is in active talks with the MLA and the DCMS to agree a timetable for the transfer of functions, and for the important decisions which need to be made during the course of the next year. The arts council and the MLA fully understand the need for clarity, especially over budgets for 2011/12, the criteria for core museums, and the investment process up to 2015.”

As it stands, Renaissance as a whole is expected to transfer to ACE during the second half of 2011. Meanwhile, hub museums have been asked to run down their infrastructures by 30 June 2011, although they will continue to receive funding for the whole of the 2011-12 financial year and a further payment in 2012-13.

As part of it taking on the MLA’s functions (bar the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is going to the British Museum), ACE has been allocated a budget of about £46m a year, including £43.4m for Renaissance. However, how this money will be split between core museums, the challenge  fund and the museum development network has not been decided.

Mark Taylor, the director of the Museums Association, said: “ACE has precious little money with which to run the museum functions
it will take on from the MLA, so the key question is – what is it that MLA does now that will have to be dropped?”

Meanwhile, discussions as to how many core museums there will be are ongoing. The Renaissance Review originally recommended the creation of a network of 10 to 12 core museums that are considered to be of national importance, but in practice this number isn’t set in stone and could end up fewer than 10. One option could be to roll out the core museum programme, with a small number acting as pilots before the scheme is widened to others.

Unlike hubs, core museums won’t have a regional remit, although the Renaissance Review did recommended that they provide “a duty of care to other museums, both as a first port of call and for those requiring specialist advice”.

Non-core museums

This means non-core museums in England will have to apply for funding from the new challenge fund. The size and length of grants, and whether these will be designated for specific activities, have not yet been confirmed.

Hedley Swain, the director of programme delivery at the MLA, said: “We will work with ACE on the detailed proposal, the final philosophy and the practical elements that should mean we are able to make announcements about core museums in the first quarter of the year.”

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