In October, the Museums Association (MA) published a major report that provides evidence on the scale of local authority cuts during the past decade across the UK.
As many in the sector will have experienced first hand, the landscape of council funding has changed drastically since 2009-10. We can now put a figure on just how badly museums have been affected. Our research – based on a review of government data – shows that across England, Scotland and Wales, the amount of local authority funding going to museums fell in real terms by 34%, 23% and 31% respectively between 2009-10 and 2019-20 (the data on Northern Ireland is limited). These figures cover all spending by local authorities on museums, including those directly operated by local authorities, as well as independent trusts that receive financial support from local authorities.
These cuts have had a material impact on museums across the UK. While there are regional and national variations, museums report a common set of issues caused by the loss of revenue funding: shorter opening hours; fewer learning and outreach programmes; substantial staff cuts; loss of expertise; and, in a limited number of cases, the closure of entire museum sites, as services are consolidated.
Many in the sector will remember the sudden closure of five museums by Lancashire County Council in 2016 and the bulldozing of Snibston Discovery Museum in Coalville, Leicestershire, in 2015. These were some of the most obvious impacts of austerity and remain symbolic of the cuts that are still being felt across the UK.
Museums in wealthier areas have generally been better positioned to weather the cuts. This inequality is likely to get worse, particularly in England, where there will continue to be a shift away from central government funding provided on the basis of spending needs. And towards a system where a council’s ability to fund services will increasingly depend on its capacity to raise revenue locally from council tax, business rates and other fees. Although Scotland and Wales are not subject to exactly the same pressures, the overall downward funding trend is similar to that in England.
What can be done to offset these losses? The MA is committed to supporting public investment in museums across the UK, and we are urging governments to work with funders and local authorities to arrest the decade-long decline in local authority spending on museums.
In England, we believe that increasing the value and reach of the National Portfolio Organisation scheme would be one way to achieve this – ensuring that central government funding supports more museums across the country. Arts Council England’s recently published delivery plan alludes to an ambition to do this, as well as to direct arts funding specifically to some of the most deprived areas in the country.
In Scotland, we are encouraging the government to review the funding system for museums with the aim of offsetting some of the losses that the sector has experienced as a result of austerity and the pandemic. In Wales, we are engaging with the new government and pressing it to act on the recommendations of the review of local museums, including regional working to deliver services locally, as well as developing a strategic approach to museum provision across Wales as part of a new strategy for culture. And in Northern Ireland, we are pressing the executive to disburse emergency funding to the sector as a first step to rebuilding post-Covid.
Civic museums across the UK have played a critical role in supporting communities during the past 18 months. While we are not going to return to pre-austerity levels of local authority funding any time soon, the MA will continue to make the case for alternative ways to get public investment – particularly long-term revenue funding – into museums, so that councils can continue to support local communities as they recover from Covid-19.
Alistair Brown is the policy manager at the Museums Association