Museums at risk as local authority funding crisis intensifies - Museums Association

Museums at risk as local authority funding crisis intensifies

Uncertainty for institutions in Woking, Birmingham and Hampshire as councils cut costs
Civic Museums Cuts
The Lightbox in Woking is facing the loss of its council funding
The Lightbox in Woking is facing the loss of its council funding Deniz Guzel

Civic museums and galleries could be forced to close as the crisis in local authority funding intensifies, sector leaders have warned.

Significant cuts to museum and cultural funding are expected across the UK as councils prepare their spring budgets amid what has been described by the Local Government Association as the biggest squeeze on local authority funding in memory.

Among the museum services in the line of fire is Hampshire Cultural Trust, which operates venues across the county, including Milestones Museum in Basingstoke, Gosport Museum and Art Gallery and The Arc in Winchester.

The trust is facing a cut of almost 50% to its funding from Hampshire County Council this year. The local authority is the trust’s largest funder, contributing £2.5m per annum to its budget.

The trust has already absorbed a real-time 50% reduction in council funding since 2014, replacing that revenue through increased sales and fundraising activity.

Hampshire Cultural Trust chief executive Paul Sapwell has warned that future closures will be inevitable if the proposed cut goes ahead.


He said: “The value of culture to individuals, groups and communities really cannot be underestimated, and a cut of this scale has the potential to change the county’s cultural landscape permanently.

“Although I can’t confirm at this stage which venues will be affected, future venue closures across the county will be inevitable if a cut of this scale is agreed. We believe a better solution can be found and that the trust can have a positive future, although tough decisions will need to be made.”

Meanwhile the Guardian reported this week that commissioners appointed to run Birmingham City Council, which effectively declared itself bankrupt earlier this month, may oversee a fire sale of council assets, potentially including Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The council issued a section 114 notice on 5 September declaring itself to be in financial distress. The notice means all new spending on non-statutory services will cease, although existing contracts and commitments will be honoured.

The trust currently receives almost £5m per annum in local authority funding.

Birmingham Museums Trust posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the coverage is "speculation" and said it would "continue to care for and protect the city’s cultural heritage on behalf of the people of Birmingham".


The director of The Lightbox in Woking, Surrey, says the popular local art gallery could be forced to close if the council cuts its funding.

Woking Borough Council has outlined a drastic package of £12m cuts to local services in response to a debt crisis brought about by a failed investment deal.

The council is proposing to remove all support, coordination and funding for arts and culture, including grants to The Lightbox, in order to save £312,000.

Sarah Brown, director of the Lightbox, warned last week that “the loss of all funding could force us to close”.

A gallery spokeswoman told Museums Journal: “While we are doing what we can to diversify income streams to mitigate against the loss of income in the next financial year, we must consider that the impact of this is significant and will affect some of the services we can offer.”

The English Civic Museums Network, which has around 60 members across England, is formulating a manifesto outlining a more sustainable future for local authority-funded museums – but civic museum leaders have warned that there is little room for further adaptation following the changes introduced in response to previous austerity measures.


The Museums Association (MA) said a strategic approach from government is urgently needed to address the crisis.  

Sharon Heal, director of the MA, said: “We are deeply concerned about the future of civic museums, especially in the cases where local authorities are being put into administration. Funding for civic museums has been systematically reduced over the past decade, as our research has demonstrated, and the current round of in-year cuts are impacting museums across the UK.

“Local museums deliver a huge amount of value working with their local communities, but being in a state of managed decline undermines their ability to look after and share collections and provide opportunities for learning and engagement. We urgently need a strategic approach from government to provide a sustainable and positive future for the sector.”

The crisis facing civic museums will be discussed at Conference 2023: The Power of Museums in Newcastle-Gateshead this November. An analysis on this subject will also appear in the November-December issue of Museums Journal


Updated to include a social media response from Birmingham Museums Trust.

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