As we start a new decade, museums are working in a very different context than they were 10 years ago. In 2010, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition that ushered in a prolonged period of austerity, the impact of which is still being felt across the sector today.
Ten years later, we have a new Conservative government with a huge majority and overarching aim to “get Brexit done”. Much of the current uncertainty centres on what this actually means in practice. For museums, the issue is likely to play out very differently in the four nations.
In Scotland, a second referendum on independence looks likely. In terms of government leadership of culture over the past decade, the sector has benefited from the continuity provided by having the same Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, since 2011. Despite this, there is a concern that a decade of local authority cuts have created a slow-burning crisis for museums as revenue budgets have been eroded.
In England, in order to create some continuity, Nicky Morgan has been retained as culture secretary, despite no longer being an MP. She is one of eight different culture secretaries in England since 2010. Having a strong voice for culture in government is difficult when that voice keeps changing.
In Northern Ireland, where concern over Brexit is keenly felt because of the issue of the Irish border, there has been no government at all since January 2017. This has made planning ahead difficult for many institutions, including museums.
Wales, which voted for Brexit, has experienced mixed fortunes over the past decade. Local authority museums have suffered from ongoing budgets cuts, but the sector has benefited from aligning with broader Welsh government aims, particularly the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.
With all this upheaval, what the future holds for museums over the next 10 years is anyone’s guess. But it is going to be an interesting decade.
Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal