Julian Spalding: More central control is the last thing our museums need

'What is proposed is that nine fat mushrooms emerge out of the debris of our regional museums'
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The Independent Online

Chris Smith, when he was the Secretary of State for Culture, thought England's regional museums and galleries were in such a crisis that he established a task force to solve their problems. That was in January. It has just given its report – a remarkably quick response in government terms, but a Secretary of State later and at a time when, as Gordon Brown has made clear, only public services that rate as a priority will receive increased spending.

Museums have never been a priority, yet the report gaily proposes that an extra £267.2m should be spent on them over the next five years. The idea is that this should go to establish what they call a "hub" museum service in each of the English regions. This will, essentially, mean a lot more money for nine existing museums, such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle, with some "satellites" added to deal with the problem of choosing between Leicester and Nottingham in the east Midlands, or Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth in the South-west.

No one doubts that these museums could do with more money. I was painfully aware as a museum director, in, respectively, Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow, how the huge cuts in public subsidy I had to introduce through the Eighties and Nineties took their toll on the number of the exhibitions we could mount, the school parties we could teach, the communities we could reach, not to mention the things we could buy. It is amazing how much we did, and museums up and down the country do, on such slender resources.

But is giving a few of them lots more money the best way of creating a new museum service? The task force thinks so, but then one of its chief architects, Sir Nicholas Serota, is used to running a national museum, and he naturally thinks big is best. He prefers to see resources concentrated into centres of excellence, rather than thinly spread. The key idea behind the report is that the selected museums will benefit the entire museum service by some means, but the means are not spelt out. To emphasise their beneficent role, they are called "hubs". But do hubs radiate largesse as they grow? Sometimes they just get bigger and bigger, while the spokes and rims get progressively thinner.

Everything would be fine if public money was not scarce and will go on increasing over the years. No one begrudges another museum getting rich first, if you're next in the queue (although there are about 1,800 recognised museums in Britain, so it's a long queue). But the days of thinking of public money as a cornucopia are over.

Even more seriously, the report, by advocating increased funding going to more centralised organisations, goes against the whole drift of government policy, not just in the UK but around the world, which is moving towards increasing diversification. The selection of the favoured "hubs" itself poses problems, and any configuration will create pits of need between the peaks of excellence.

Crucially, the report does not ask the question: what museum and gallery services will we need in the future? Is it a human right, for example, to be permitted to preserve evidence of what our past was like, and, if so, how is it to be selected? Does everyone have a right to have access to it? What should such access mean? Is it enough, for example, for something to be available in store, or do museums have the responsibility to interpret its meaning? Is it the mark of a civilised society that its citizens are able to develop their special interests – for instance, in the arts, history and sciences? If so, then how far should we have to travel for such needs to be fulfilled – to the nearest supermarket, or the nearest metropolis?

If the task force had looked at museums from the user's point of view, their report could have painted a very different vision. It could have proposed the development of history centres where people would be able to research all aspects of the past, combining archival and museum collections online, as is widely practiced in the US. It could have envisaged a variety of communities of interests and social backgrounds developing their own museums, making the roles of collecting, researching and exhibiting serve their own needs. And it could have foreseen the development of all our major museums, over time, as they change their services to meet changing social needs.

This could all be paid for, incrementally, as money becomes available. Most importantly, these myriad and varied services could make much better use of the treasures that remain hidden in our museums' stores. Instead, what is proposed is that nine fat mushrooms emerge out of the pile – assuming, that is, as a fairy government is happy to come along and tap them on the head. But if it doesn't? The report proposes no alternative. As far as it is concerned, they might as well all rot.

The writer's book, 'The Poetic Museum', will be published by Prestel in February 2002