The Guardian view on the museums review: where’s the cash?
There are obvious things that lend a place its identity: the cathedral or the town hall, or the canal and the old warehouses. And then there are the identifiers that are often overlooked, yet which contain the essence of a locality. The local museum embraces the entirety of a particular human experience. From the Romans – often from earlier times – the marks made by man and woman, their loves and their wars, their beliefs and their work, their idea of beauty and their way of birth and death and all the stages in between are represented in artefacts that have once had meaning to someone who passed through that place. These keepers of the past – from the Derwent pencil museum in Keswick to Cornwall’s museum of withcraft – are woven out of their area’s identity. But those funded by their local authority have spent the last decade locked in a fight for resources, where councils who must keep the heating on in care homes cast jealous eyes over the assets represented by their local cultural institutions.
On Tuesday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published its strategic review of museums, which was commissioned in 2016 partly to address the funding crisis in the museum sector. It was less than two years ago, but it was a different era, before the referendum, before the election, when it seemed the economy might finally be emerging from recession. In this much less optimistic age, its recommendations reflect admiration for the role the sector plays in the life of both local and national cultural life, without being able to make any big offer on the single most important challenge that, in this tenth year of steeply restricted funding, almost every museum is facing: the pressure on the core funding that pays for the curators’ and the storerooms and the permanent displays. When there is always a tension between the false choice of “essential services” and the apparent luxury of cultural institutions, the review has the virtue of making the argument for the real value that museums represent in return for what – compared with, say, the bill for adult social care – is a tiny investment.
There are 2,000 museums in England alone, of astonishing range and diversity, employing 33,000 people. Yet the government funding is a minute slice of the national budget. For the global sum (including directly sponsored institutions) of less than £1bn a year, England’s museums (and, equally, the separately funded ones of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) offer everything from a warm place to go for the lonely to an illuminating experience for the curious; along the way, some – such as Liverpool national museums – offer dementia programmes for carers and sufferers. Others have “health and culture” programmes and others still programmes aimed at the socially isolated. In any one year, half the adult population visits a museum – up from 40% a decade ago.
Most curators know what they need to do better, and how they might do it; the battle is finding the cash. The review offers a strategic overview – a bigger role for the national museums, new ways of working for the department and related bodies like Arts Council England and the national lottery. Nothing wrong with any of that. It may make what cash there is go further. But it won’t generate any more. Many local museums, faced with council cuts, have been forced to bring back charges. That issue was not in the review’s remit. But maybe that’s an argument that has to be won again.
Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham. ‘These keepers of the past … are woven out of their area’s identity. But those funded by their local authority have spent the last decade locked in a fight for resources.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo