Editorial: Misunderstanding the future - Museums Association

Editorial: Misunderstanding the future

After an awful lot of machination the department for culture published its response to the consultation on Understanding the Future …
After an awful lot of machination the department for culture published its response to the consultation on Understanding the Future last month.

Those of you that can cast your minds far enough back will remember that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) produced Understanding the Future in January 2005 with the aim of stimulating a debate on the issues that museums and galleries face.

More than 70 organisations responded with their shopping lists of things they would like to see addressed, from the paltry levels of pay in museums, to the lack of cash for acquisitions.

And one of the over-riding messages from respondents was that a national strategy for museums should be created. This was echoed in evidence given to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee last month when Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, talked about the need for a coherent UK-wide museum strategy (see Select committee told that a 'single voice' is needed for UK museums).

Unfortunately the final document is less of a strategy and more of a DCMS to-do list. Somewhere along the way it changed from an attempt to draw together an overarching policy document into a set of priorities for the DCMS. These include museums working more closely with each other; fulfilling their potential as learning resources; using their collections in a more dynamic way; and having representative workforces. No wonder it has already been described as bland and a statement of the obvious.

But the saga doesn't end there. This is only 'part two of a three-stage process'. Next we have the 12-week consultation period (until 19 January) and then the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) will be asked to prepare an action plan. So towards the middle of next year, after a gestation period of well over two years, we might get a clearer idea of the DCMS's priorities for museums (although we will be no nearer an actual strategy).

This is a shame, because heading into the next Comprehensive Spending Review a vibrant and clearly defined strategy for national and regional museums would be handy. It's going to be a tough round and behind the scenes there's almost an air of resignation that museums will not get all they hoped for. The national museums and the MLA have already been asked by the DCMS to say what the results of 7 per cent year-on-year cuts would look like. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to realise the results would be quite ugly. The DCMS has been told that it could mean the closure of outposts for national museums and phase one hubs being pulled back to phase two status.

So far this is a paper exercise but, as well as reminding the DCMS and the Treasury how good museums are, it doesn't hurt to let them know that if the axe falls on museums, the consequences will be disastrous.

Sharon Heal, editor

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