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.

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