Cutbacks of £3m 'forced on' British Museum

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The Independent Online

The British Museum, the country's most popular cultural attraction, yesterday unveiled swingeing cutbacks and blamed a reduction in funding from the Government.

The museum said it was considering cutting opening hours, closing galleries and reducing exhibitions to save £3m a year to balance its books.

It is also reported to have shelved plans for an £80m study centre to show some of the four million objects in its collections that visitors never see. The 12-storey building in Holborn, central London, was intended to house its science and conservation research and half of its curatorial departments.

The museum warned that the cutbacks would quickly be felt by the public. Galleries would probably close on a rotating basis and opening hours – recently extended on two nights a week and on Sundays – were being urgently reviewed.

To counter claims that the museum had become a victim of Government underfunding, the Department of Culture claimed that the museum had landed in financial trouble due to escalating operating costs of the Great Court, which was designed by Sir Norman Foster and opened last year.

According to Department of Culture figures, the Great Court is costing an annual £4.5m to run, which has contributed to a huge rise in the museum's spending – from £65m in 1998 to £103m this year. A statement issued by the Department of Culture last night said: "The British Museum has told the department that its current financial problems have arisen because the operating costs of the Great Court have turned out to be higher than they planned and their revenue income from sources other than the grant has been less than expected. It is for the museum to manage the funds available to it."

However, the outgoing managing director, Suzanna Taverne, a former banker credited with turning around the museum's finances, said it was being unfairly punished for its stand against admission fees.

She said the British Museum did not benefit in the same way as those museums that had previously charged but were now free and receiving Government compensation. She claimed that the museum was missing out on a pay-off estimated at £8m.

Ms Taverne claimed that despite a rise in visitor numbers this year – to an estimated 4.5m visitors – the museum's annual grant had effectively been cut by £10m. The museum will receive a grant of £36m this year, almost a third of its total budget. The Department of Culture said that while its support had fallen in real terms, it increased the museum's funding by £700,000 this year.

* Barclays Bank is to become the largest business sponsor of the National Theatre in London and promised yesterday that there would be no "crass commercialisation" behind the deal.

Barclays will give £1m to the National Theatre. The British Museum, the National Gallery and Tate Britain will also receive £900,000 as part of the sponsorship package, which will run for two years.