The £16m sale of the Egyptian statue Sekhemka saw Northampton Museums Service barred from MA membership earlier this year

One in 10 museums considered sale from collections in the past year

Geraldine Kendall, 26.11.2014
MA survey reveals cuts are forcing museums to consider "drastic action"
The Museums Association's (MA) Cuts Survey 2014 has revealed that one in ten responding museums has considered financially-motivated disposal in the past year.

The survey showed that museums are increasingly concerned that they will be forced to sell objects from their collections as local authorities and governing bodies seek to plug holes in dwindling budgets.

One respondent from a museum trust in central England told the survey: “We the operating company won’t be considering financially-motivated disposal – the owners of the collections [the council] may decide to do otherwise.”

The development follows the controversial sale by Northampton Borough Council of the Egyptian statue Sekhemka earlier this year, and the sale of items from the Riesco collection held by Croydon City Council the previous year.

Both disposals were deemed unethical and resulted in each local authority's museum service being barred from MA membership and losing Arts Council England Accreditation. The MA is currently considering new sanctions to deter others from selling collections to generate income.

The MA’s director Sharon Heal said: “We know there is huge pressure on public funding but it is very worrying that museums are being forced to consider drastic action to stave off the impact of the cuts. Once objects and collections are sold it is likely that they will be lost to the public forever.”

Frontline services

The survey also revealed that, with 52% of respondents seeing their overall income fall in the past year, the impact of cuts on frontline services has been unavoidable.

Almost a quarter of museums have reduced the number of temporary exhibitions,  21% have cut opening hours and 9% have closed down part of their museum or its branches in the past year. More than one third (36%) say school visits have decreased since 2013.

One respondent from an independent museum in Scotland said: “It is vital that we don’t overspend – if this means providing less for the public but maintaining our collection care procedures, so be it.”

Museum staff

The museum workforce has also been severely affected by cuts, according to this year’s survey. Full-time staff have been cut at 53% of responding museums, the highest percentage since the cuts survey began, while 32% of museums have increased the number of unpaid roles.

Many respondents reported a drain on professional expertise and said that increasing levels of responsibility were being delegated to junior, low-paid or voluntary staff; others said morale was low, as museum workers faced longer unpaid working hours, falling wages and an increase in short-term, zero-hours contracts.

One respondent from a local authority service in Scotland said their museum was “unable to spread a skeleton staff any thinner”.

Building resilience

But the survey also showed that museums are proving resilient in the face of cuts, with more than a third increasing their self-generated income. Respondents also said they were committed to reaching the widest possible audience, with 46% saying they would do more to encourage participation in the coming year.

The survey showed, however, that some museums require more support in this area; while an overwhelming majority (79%) are focused on becoming more self-reliant, almost a quarter said that their self-generated income had decreased, and 27% said they would be doing less to encourage participation over the coming year.

Respondents reported that ongoing funding cuts, regional economic variations and a lack of flexibility within local government were hampering their efforts to build resilience.

Others also raised concerns that the pressure to generate income and commercialise their assets could compromise their museum’s public access and core values.

The MA has called for a strategic approach to public funding, using the “maximum effort to support museums and collections at risk”, in order to ensure that all parts of the museum sector can build resilience and continue to serve communities and the public.

Heal said: “Our museums have proved incredibly resilient over the past few years. They account for a tiny proportion of public spending yet they have a huge impact in terms of learning, enjoyment, health and wellbeing and we need them now more than ever.”

The MA has been helping museums to become more resilient while maintaining their frontline services through its Museums Change Lives programme, which focuses on the actions that museums can take to reach out to the widest possible audience, particularly those communities that are suffering the effects of reductions in public funding.

The MA has also published a new section on its website dedicated to helping museums build resilience.


Download the MA Cuts Survey 2014 (pdf)

Building resilience


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01.12.2014, 15:28
One could weep for staff and public! It is good that many museums are fighting back but the way things seem to go in Northampton does not give me much hope locally. Northampton does have a new Cultural Services Manager, Nick Gordon, who has the museums under his wing. One wonders what he thought when the Central Museums WWI exhibition, "A Shoemaker Goes to War" was unveiled on 4 August. This was supposed to be the HIGHLIGHT of the exhibition year and it was atrocious! Very few actual shoemakers featured, most of the exhibition items stemmed from the Regimental Collections and the accompanying text was too long and full of inaccuracies and spelling mistakes. Some of these mistakes were pointed out in the first week of exhibition and were NOT corrected; indeed, halfway through the exhibition duration a school class attended and was appalled by all the spelling mistakes and made a LIST of these which was given to staff - still NO corrections! For this exhibition the museums received a grant from HLF! One wonders, did a representative from HLF ever check that the money was well spent ???
It is exactly exhibitions like this that will occur if staff is demoralised and stretched too far and under the boot command of its Local Authority that may have little or no understanding of local history and nationally important collections.
Using volunteers is great BUT these volunteers need to be screened for knowledge and use of English - it is no good being ethnically inclusive if your volunteers cannot write proper English since proper English is the common language in our diverse society.
It is also important that local museums have Friends groups that are totally independent of the Local Authority to act as a moral buffer against misuse or misdirection generated from the top. Here in Northampton we have closed down our Friends because nobody wishes to serve on the Committee due to either age or not trusting our Borough Council.
So all of you out there fight for your museums, try to educate your Local Authorities to work with you and not against you - culture is important and unites people and puts a golden edge on the grey everyday.
Above all, all you great and good please don't just declare that you are going to have meetings re tightening up rules and regulations and then let it peter out - DO something and back us protesters up when the sticky situations occur and do it very forcefully! The MA was helpful to the Save Sekhemka Action Group but the big hitting arguments came, sadly, too late.
Large museums are wonderful but we need the local ones as well that are near to people and that matter sentimentally and culturally to the collective local memory.