The Guardian view on the mu­se­ums re­view: where’s the cash?

The Guardian Australia - - The Guardian View / Environment - Ed­i­to­rial

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

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