Museums are being forced by cuts to reduce their numbers of professional staff and increasingly rely on volunteers to man their collections.
A survey of more than 120 museums and museum services across the country found that more than a third had cut their paid staff while nearly half had increased the number of unpaid interns and volunteers required to maintain their institutions.
The study by the Museums Association (MA) found that staff reductions were primarily the result of a loss of public investment, with just shy of half reporting a cut to their overall income in the 12 months to July this year and nearly a quarter losing more than 10 per cent of their earnings.
The industry body said that members were concerned that the loss of paid staff, including curators, would lead to lower standards, in particular in the care and interpretation of museum collections.
One local authority museum, based in south England, reported: “We have gone over to a professional volunteer model with many of our front-of-house staff new volunteers.”
Mark Taylor, the MA’s director, said: “Interns and volunteers have plenty to offer, but can never replace skilled, experienced staff. We know museums’ public services are being hit and we are increasingly worried about the loss of specialist expertise and the long-term care of collections.”
The body pointed to a 31 per cent drop in the number of school visits to museums as part of a worrying trend of institutions finding it increasingly hard to reach “non-traditional” audiences. It added that internships were reducing the diversity of those entering the museum professions because “only wealthier young people can afford to work for nothing”.
There was also evidence that hopes philanthropy would replace taxpayer funding, which will have seen public money for national and regional museums reduced by almost a third between 2010 and 2016, have not come to fruition.
Only 28 per cent of museums reported a rise in giving by private individuals or organisations, with nearly one in five reporting a fall.
Mr Taylor said: “The potential for increased philanthropy appears limited in many parts of the UK and for many museum subject areas. Philanthropic efforts will never substitute for the loss of public funding.”
The Government said museum visits were at their highest-ever levels and institutions were having to adapt to new fundraising methods.
A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: “We want philanthropy to supplement, not substitute public subsidy and it should be seen as one element of a funding model which includes other forms of income generation.”