Adaptability is the key to survival - Museums Association

Adaptability is the key to survival

Policies discourage a steady and deliberative approach for the long term
Profile image for Tony Butler
Tony Butler

The most profound transformation to affect UK regional museums in the past decade is not technological, curatorial or educational, but financial. Since 2010, austerity has had damaging effects on the finances of many museums owned or supported by local councils. Some museums, such as my own, have seen local authority funding halved in just over five years. 

In 2014, 97% of Derby Museums’ revenue came from two sources: Arts Council England and Derby City Council. In 2019, that proportion was 45%. The remainder is now made up from commercial activity, funding from trusts and foundations, private fundraising and revenue elements from a major capital development at Derby’s Museum of Making.

Many civic museums, previously not known for their buccaneering spirit, have transformed from “services” to “social enterprises”, combining opportunism with a profound sense of social purpose. It is a testament to those working in these resilient institutions that services are enhanced, and few museums have actually closed.

In Derby, we have rebalanced the organisation, so that it is “fundraising ready”. We have fewer curatorial roles than we did in 2014, and have built a strong commercial and fundraising team. Working together, they make the most of our unique assets, generating income from venue hires, functions and events to support our work with communities. Three years ago, we began building an endowment from scratch, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. By 2022, this fund should have reached £2m, with the return from ethical investments contributing to our revenues. 

We have built in revenue elements of a major capital development at the Museum of Making, which reopened in mid-May following an £18m revamp. It’s hardly a secret that many organisations use the “spill” from capital programmes to support capacity that would have otherwise been maintained from unrestricted revenue funds. 

Finally, exhibition tax relief has borne financial fruit, while encouraging organisations to produce new galleries and exhibitions. 


Nevertheless, as we emerge from the pandemic and unprecedented “one off” government support, it is clear that there will be no abatement in austerity.

Current policies simultaneously incentivise growth and development while discouraging a steadier, deliberative approach for the long term. A consequence of austerity has been the reduction of many local authorities’ ability to carry out timely repairs and maintenance on museum buildings. The recently launched Museum Estate and Development Fund exists because museums were literally unable “to fix the roof when the sun shone”. Schemes such as the Levelling Up funds, while singling out culture as worthy of support, cite delivery by 2024 as a key objective.

Serious income streams from social or wellbeing programmes commissioned from either local councils or the NHS have failed to materialise because most museum organisations cannot operate at scale.

A family admire a loom on display in The Gateway at the Museum of Making – (c) Chris Seddon Photography-Derby Museums

Many may feel that this more “transactional” approach makes museums more focused and accountable to audiences. I would agree, but it has also reduced the space for reflection and iteration. In Derby, the Museum of Making is built around relationships, forging links between communities and individuals based on reciprocity; where the museum, as a civic institution, knows its place as part of a wider ecology of civil society.

Decent levels of unrestricted state funding act as a kind of universal basic income, allowing the space in museums for serendipity; to be the centre of exchange of non-market goods such as volunteering, care or knowledge. A community group might previously have used our galleries free of charge, for example. That’s now unlikely, as we maximise the income from the venue as a hireable space. 


We were able to develop a participatory approach to building our museums during a time of relative plenty and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to embed it into our systems, notwithstanding the reduction of public revenue funding.

Like it or not though, museums are part of a pervasive economic system that rewards short-term growth, rather than long-term sustainability. Those that will thrive will have to adapt ever-more skilfully in a world that purports to seek long-term sustainability but in reality seems to favour the quick win.

Tony Butler is the executive director of Derby Museums

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