Podium: Time to kill off some bad museums

From a lecture by the president of the Association of Independent Museums at the Bank of England

THE WORLD wants museums. Throughout the developed world and increasingly in the developing world the demand for museums has never been greater. When one considers that the notion of the public museum is more than 250 years old, this should give us reassurance. Museums are an enduring part of our civilisation. And the central purpose of the museum, in its underlying essentials, has hardly changed. We hold collections and reveal them to our audiences. Museums are about objects and for people, as they have always been.

The enthusiasm of the British public for museums is currently being demonstrated in a programme of capital investment larger than anything that has taken place in our lifetimes, and possibly ever before. No central strategy lies behind it; on the contrary, it is born out of fortuitous circumstance and driven as much by the ambitions of providers as by the explicit desires of users.

The pattern of that investment reflects the two current worldwide infatuations: for new museums of contemporary art - in Bankside and Walsall, for example; and for interactive science - through new science centres in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Leicester, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

This capital investment reflects, too, the initial Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) commitment to respond to the needs of museums. That commitment was made despite the fact that there was no underlying strategy and that HLF has little or no ability to intervene proactively in determining who should or should not apply and thereby benefit. In the absence of anything else, HLF has de facto assumed the role of policy-maker. It has been refreshingly catholic in dispensing its favours, especially to museums of modest size and means, many of which are represented here this evening. That, we understand, will continue. It has put real investment into the history of ordinary people, industrial history and archaeology, social history and museums of local communities. That has never happened before. It has set a high priority on achieving quality, with exemplary and forthright demands for good building design.

I believe passionately that we need and always will need new museums. But we need even more to kill off a few old ones and we have no mechanism for achieving that. More important still, we have to be confident that we can support the growing family at something above subsistence level.

If museums have any real claim on a right to permanence, it has still to be recognised and understood. More important, museums themselves have yet to articulate that claim in a cogent manner.

This is not an issue peculiar to Britain. Several of those grands projets we love to quote, when we think Paris does it better, are in crisis over running costs. Science centres in the US fail because they have no means of renewing themselves. New Metropolis in Amsterdam, Europe's newest science centre, hovers on the edge of closure because there is no visible means of support.

Despite what many of you may think, it is relatively easy to raise capital for a new museum project, even in a lottery-free zone. The myth is that the running costs will look after themselves. In more than 12 years as director of the Science Museum I have had literally dozens of enthusiastic groups entering my office to tell me about their beautiful ideas. Fewer than 10 per cent had the slightest concept of the realities of life after the tape had been cut at the opening.

Here is another myth: "museums are in the hands of unaccountable incompetents who couldn't run a sweet shop." There are, of course, such people in such places, but they are now the exception. The quality of the best museum governance in Britain is as good as if not better than any in the world. There is a real issue here which none of us should ignore. On 29 June I attended the seminar chaired by the Prime Minister at No 10 "for influential figures from the arts". One moment in particular stuck in my memory, if only because the key statement was repeated at least three times during the afternoon. Leaning across the table to face the godfathers of the arts world with unblinking gaze Tony Blair said, and I paraphrase, "you don't need to persuade me of your excellence but you do need to show me that you are efficient."

Good museums have nothing to fear from what will be the increasingly contractual nature of their relationships with funding bodies or sponsoring departments. We need to protect the diversity of museums' provision, to draw from it best practice and to apply it liberally and with enthusiasm.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada