Culture, Media and Sport Committee: protecting, preserving and making accessible our nation's heritage

Response from the Museums Association, January 2006
1.0 Introduction

1.1 The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 5,000 individual members and 600 institutional members. These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums.

Formed in 1889, it is a charity, receiving no regular government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society and the public.

1.2 The MA represents not only museums but also galleries which hold permanent collections. Throughout this submission, "museums" should be taken to mean "museums and galleries" of this kind.

1.3 The MA welcomes the fact that the Committee has explicitly included museums within the scope of this inquiry. It is of course the case that some key heritage issues likely to figure in the forthcoming white paper, such as the planning framework, are of only marginal relevance to museums.

Nevertheless, museums are instrumental in preserving and making accessible large parts of the nation's heritage and have to be included in any consideration of the future of heritage funding and structures.

1.4 There is often some confusion - within the sector as much as outside - in the way the terminology is used. "Heritage" sometimes means built heritage, and sometimes refers to a broader sector which includes museums. The MA would encourage the Committee during this inquiry both to be clear what it means by heritage and to take as broad a perspective as possible.

1.5 In practice, the links between museums and the built heritage sector are getting stronger all the time, and there has certainly been a marked shift in perception over the last 20 - 30 years. For example, in the 1960s, the National Trust in England was apparently hostile to the idea that its buildings could be considered museums.

Now, the National Trust runs more recognised museums than any other governing body, 8% of the total accredited under the scheme run by MLA. And around 50% of all museums are housed in historic buildings, so museums play a major role in making the historic environment accessible to the public.

1.6 To take another example, Heritage Link is a new umbrella body which brings together organisations working in the heritage sector in its broadest sense and it has helped to increase the dialogue between organisations concerned with the built historic environment and museums and others concerned with "moveable" heritage.

1.7 This closer working is not yet reflected in the structures within DCMS and its NDPBs. Museums and "heritage" (including the built heritage and archaeology) are the responsibility of separate departments within DCMS and the two departments could work more closely together and do more to foster links between museums and other heritage organisations on the ground. English Heritage is the lead body for archaeology in England but could take a greater role in supporting museum archaeology.

1.8 The Committee's announcement cited the forthcoming Heritage White Paper, as well as changes to Lottery funding prompted by the London 2012 Olympics, as the context for this inquiry. The inquiry is also timely in that it coincides with an ongoing review of the museum sector by DCMS. DCMS set out to examine the challenges facing the museum sector, with a consultation document published in 2005, Understanding the Future. DCMS is still formulating its response to the views expressed during that consultation and the Committee may wish to comment on the issues covered by this review. Further details on the structural issues at stake are given below in section 4.

2.0 Access to heritage and the position of heritage as a cultural asset in the community

2.1 New research carried out for DCMS suggests that 43% of people living in England have made at least one museum visit in the previous year . Museums are popular institutions and, in common with other heritage organisations, they have placed much emphasis in recent years on broadening their audiences.

This emphasis on access is welcome and must continue. However, the drive to increase audiences must go hand in hand with a continuing and strengthened commitment to developing and preserving heritage in all its forms. For museums, this means a renewed commitment to developing and making best use of their collections.

2.2 In 2005, the Museums Association published a major report, Collections for the Future. The report makes proposals that will ensure that more people have more opportunities to engage with museum collections, and that those collections are as rich, diverse and inspiring as they can possibly be.

One prompt to producing the report was to dispel the notion - sometimes current in recent years - that paying attention to audiences and attention to collections are somehow mutually exclusive. Pressure to increase audiences has sometimes led to declining investment in collections. In the long run this is counter-productive. If people are entitled to access to museums, then they have to be entitled to engage fully with collections. Otherwise "access" is meaningless.

2.3 This perspective is very pertinent to this inquiry. Across the broader sector, there is no point preserving heritage unless it can be explored and enjoyed in some way; and there will be nothing to explore and enjoy unless our heritage is preserved and developed. We urge the Committee to keep in mind the twin imperatives of preservation and public access when considering the future of the UK's heritage.

2.4 The question of what constitutes "our nation's heritage" is of course not straightforward and the Committee should also consider questions of diversity when developing its recommendations. The heritage sector has already taken significant steps to ensure that what is preserved reflects a broader range of people's lives and experiences than was the case in the past.

Museums, for example, have for a long time recorded the working lives of ordinary people. More recently, they have worked with diverse community groups to collect objects which reflect their lives. And an increasingly prevalent trend has been to explore existing collections from new perspectives, looking for material relating to neglected subject areas; one initiative for example has looked for material related to the lives of disabled people.

We urge the Committee to make recommendations which help to increase the range and richness of the heritage that is preserved and presented to audiences.

2.5 If museums are to succeed in reflecting the diversity of society in their collections and in their work, they will need to do more to ensure the diversity of their workforce and governing bodies. Fewer than 2% of people working in core museum roles associated with collections and their presentation are from ethnic minorities, compared to 7% of the UK workforce as a whole.

The Museums Association's Diversify project has been working with museums and universities to help people from ethnic minorities gain the right skills and experience to step onto the career ladder. By the end of this year, the MA will have offered at least 50 positive-action traineeships or bursaries, many funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, as part of the Renaissance in the Regions initiative to revitalise England's regional museums.

Diversify is a success story; however, there remains much more to be done to ensure that people in more senior roles and in particular on governing bodies reflect the diversity of the communities museums serve.

2.6 The MA's Collections for the Future report argues that museums must do more to ensure that more of their collections are actively used and enjoyed by the public. This is in large part a challenge for the sector, but it also presents challenges to the government and to funders.

The report's action plan is based on working with others to deliver the plans it sets out. DCMS's discussion paper, Understanding the Future and Collections for the Future share much common ground.

The MA hopes that DCMS will give priority to taking forward the outcomes from its consultation exercise to ensure that museums are in the best possible position to meet the challenges they face. Further comment on the structural issues discussed in Understanding the Future can be found in section 4.

3.0 Funding

3.1 MLA's programme of funding for regional museums in England, Renaissance in the Regions, has represented the most significant opportunity for English non-national museums in a generation. The additional funding has helped important museums, which were in many cases suffering from decades of under-funding and cheese-paring cuts, to regain strength and begin to improve the service they offer to audiences.

3.2 Renaissance establishes an important principle: that central government has a responsibility to support non-national museums with revenue funding. It reflects the understanding that regional museums and their collections form part of our national heritage, alongside national museums. In this sense, the Museums Association believes that Renaissance represents the way forward for museum funding in England.

3.3 However, the programme has yet to be fully funded. Of the nine English regions, three are funded to a level that enables them to deliver change on the scale required: the North East, the South West and the West Midlands.

The other six have received a lower level of funding; this was increased following the 2004 Spending Review but is still only at the level of 60% of the total needed. It is vital that investment in Renaissance continues and is increased in future Spending Reviews to ensure that users across the whole of England are able to benefit.

3.4 Moreover, it should be stressed that Renaissance is not a panacea for all the problems facing English museums. Although it does have widespread benefits, it should not be made to stretch too far.

Renaissance aims to strengthen the most important regional museums and it may become ineffective if it does not keep this focus. It needs to be acknowledged that other museums still have serious funding difficulties and that there is a need for a coherent approach to museum structures and funding across England. We say more about this in section 4 of this submission.

3.5 Alongside Renaissance, the National Lottery has presented a very significant opportunity to UK museums. Capital projects funded by the Lottery have brought about a transformation of museum infrastructure on a scale not seen since the nineteenth century. More recently, the emphasis on funding programmes of activity has enabled many museums to carry out worthwhile and innovative work.

3.6 The museum sector is of course concerned about the threat to the future of Lottery funding for heritage. The museum community recognises that the London Olympics in 2012 represent a significant opportunity for the country as a whole, including the cultural sector.

Nevertheless, the likelihood that the amount of funding available for heritage projects will decline as a result must be a concern, particularly to those outside London. The MA urges the Committee to encourage DCMS to ensure that heritage retains its percentage share of the main pot of Lottery funding.

3.7 The MA's report Collections for the Future confirmed that museums are faced with serious challenges in collecting. The concern must be that museums are no longer developing their collections with the vibrancy and rigour needed to ensure that they serve the needs of current and future audiences.

Funding for acquisitions is scarce. The problems faced by art museums are relatively well documented, as the price of major works continues to rise well above the rate of inflation. The funding the Heritage Lottery Fund is able to make available for acquisitions has declined as its income has fallen and as it is subject to other pressures. And museums in some other subject areas may face even greater difficulty: there is almost no funding available for the purchase of natural history specimens for example.

3.8 Some charitable and voluntary organisations have taken steps to assist with museum acquisitions. For example, the Headley Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, has set aside funds to enable regional museums to buy artefacts classified as treasure under the Treasure Act 1996.

But the scale of the challenge is such that the government has to take the lead in addressing this problem. In particular, every decade, a handful of very important works come on to the market; if these are to be retained in the UK for everyone to enjoy, more government funding must be made available.

Tax incentives for acquisitions are also vital. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme enables museums to make significant acquisitions every year but there are many more opportunities. This whole area was explored in detail by the Goodison Review, published by the Treasury in early 2004 and apparently now forgotten. The MA urges the Committee to revisit its recommendations.

4.0 Roles and responsibilities

4.1 Museums in the UK are funded by central government, local government, the armed forces, universities and by charitable and voluntary organisations including the National Trust.

4.2 The structures for museums and galleries in England are somewhat piecemeal, the result of local enthusiasm and individual vision, rather than centralised planning. This is of course in many ways a great strength, since it can bring museums close to the passions and aspirations of their local communities. However, it does mean that individual museums stand or fall on the basis of the support of their governing bodies, and that significant museums may decline or even close without a framework for intervention from a national body.

Every year we hear of many museums, especially smaller museums run by local authorities, which are under threat. Reorganisation within local authorities has often weakened the position of museums, leaving them stranded as anomalies within departments primarily concerned with something else and easy targets for funding cuts.

Renaissance is rebuilding the strength of the most substantial regional museums but it does not - and was never intended to - solve the problems facing every non-national museum. The Museums Association believes that there is a need for a proper national strategy for all English museums, which takes account of the needs and potential of the whole sector, and which provides a framework for supporting and encouraging local authorities and other bodies that run museums.

4.3 A national strategy would articulate the role that all kinds of museums play as part of a wider network. It would provide a more rational context for decision-making about the future of museums under threat. It would also better define the nation-wide role of the national museums. A crucial foundation for a national strategy is to create a single funding and strategy council for museums.

Renaissance has shown that much more can be achieved when funding allocation and strategic direction is overseen by one body. The Museums Association believes that this should be extended across the museum sector, to include the national museums. A further advantage of this would be that a single funding council would be well placed to build appropriate links with the broader heritage sector as well as with libraries and archives, as in the current structure.

4.4 This inquiry is, of course, limited in its formal scope to matters concerning England. However, notwithstanding the reality of devolution, museum professionals regularly need to work across borders within the UK. The nature of the UK's history and continuing development means that bodies concerned with cultural and heritage in each nation within the UK need to cooperate closely.

In our sector, MLA has established some links with its sister bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, we are concerned that this spirit of cooperation needs to be extended to government and believe that DCMS could do more to cooperate where appropriate with the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and vice versa.

4.5 It follows from those comments that it is also essential for heritage bodies to operate within an international context. There are many positive examples of museums cooperating with partners in the EU and beyond but the potential for cooperation remains under-exploited, particularly for smaller organisations which find it difficult to access funding. We urge the Committee to take an international perspective in making its recommendations.

5.0 Conservation expertise

5.1 In its reference to conservation skills, the Committee's brief primarily focuses on the care and preservation of historic buildings. However, it should also be noted that there are also concerns about the possibility of future skills shortages in the conservation of museum objects.

The new Institute of Conservation will be the lead voice for the conservation of cultural heritage in the UK and will be developing strategies for addressing these concerns. (The Museums Association has a number of initiatives to address actual or potential deficits in specialist skills in other aspects of the care and interpretation of museum objects.)

5.2 The recently created Creative and Cultural Skills Sector Skills Council encompasses all aspects of skills and workforce development within museums and the broader heritage sector, among other areas. The establishment of CCS is another indication of the growing links between museums and the rest of the heritage sector. CCS is well placed to begin to address skills shortages and to work towards a more capable and mobile workforce able to provide better services for the public.

6.0 Recommendations

6.1 The Museums Association urges the Committee to give its support to the following points in particular:

6.2 Renaissance, the programme of funding for regional museums, must be sustained and expanded.

6.3 DCMS must work with the sector to develop a comprehensive national strategy for museums, which pays particular attention to the needs of smaller museums.

6.4 DCMS should develop better links internally between its heritage and museum departments.

6.5 DCMS should encourage English Heritage to work more closely with the museum sector, especially on museum archaeology.

6.6 The Heritage Lottery Fund's share of National Lottery good causes money must be maintained.

6.7 The government must take a lead in addressing the issue of funding for museum acquisitions.

6.8 DCMS should support initiatives to increase the diversity of the museum workforce and, in particular, governing bodies.

For more information or comment, please contact:

Helen Wilkinson, Policy Officer, Museums Association, 24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW 020 7426 6950