Rethinking funding of our civic museums
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Simon Stephens
There is no doubt that civic museums across the UK are under severe financial pressure. But why do some councils choose to back their museums, while others are cutting their funding altogether? There are many factors at play, but there is no doubt that tourism is often a driver for investment.

Work will start soon on Plymouth History Centre, a £34m project to move the collections from the City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, South West Image Bank and South West Film and Television Archive to one site. Local residents will benefit greatly, but the city council has made it clear that it also wants to attract more of the tourists who flock to south-west England.

In Scotland, Renfrewshire Council is going ahead with a £56.7m plan to transform Paisley Museum into an world-class visitor attraction, despite a recent knock-back by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Again, residents will benefit, but the local authority has said that it hopes the project will attract large numbers of day-trippers and tourists into the area.

But what about the museums in the areas where tourists are thin on the ground? Times are tough for many of these venues, and will only get worse as local authorities make further spending cuts.

The fact that Walsall Council, in a bid to save £86m over four years, is considering cutting all support for the New Art Gallery shows how drastic the situation has become (see news, p6). This is a landmark arts building that has hosted exhibitions of international significance. If such an important institution is under threat, what hope is there for others?

But all is not lost. Museums have shown that they can play a crucial role in supporting local authority objectives in areas such as health, wellbeing and education. Some authorities – Glasgow is an obvious example – understand this and invest accordingly. But this is by no means the case everywhere.

Museums need stable financial support if they are to carry out work that makes a real difference to the communities they serve. But as local authorities struggle to fund cultural services, alternative sources of revenue need to be found. Sympathetic noises from funders and government are not enough. Action is needed, otherwise it will be too late for some.

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