Warning - our museums are on the way to being history

If you are thinking of a bank holiday visit to the local museum today, spare a thought as to whether it will always be there, says David Barrie
Click to follow
The Independent Online
OUR MUSEUMS are in deep trouble. Some may soon be closing their doors for good unless the Government takes urgent steps to sort out the muddle that is our present so-called "system" of museum funding.

The evidence is all too clear. Take, for example, Buckinghamshire County Museum - an award-winning local authority-funded institution which has recently suffered a cut of pounds 250,000 in its annual budget. The result is that the Director and many of the curators, as well as the county archaeologist, have been laid off and even if the museum survives this catastrophe, it could well be a different story next year.

Or consider Glasgow. A pounds 2m cut in the local authority museums budget has led to massive staff reductions there, including nearly all the conservators. The city's ability to go on caring properly for its great collections has been seriously questioned. Already the McLellan Gallery has been closed and the summer blockbuster exhibition has been shelved. The same depressing theme is being played, with variations, in dozens of towns and cities all over the country.

Nor can we be complacent about the small group of major national museums and galleries that are funded directly by central government. They too have been ground down by a relentless succession of budgetary cuts, and although some of them have successfully exploited their unique advantages, others are having a much bumpier ride.

The British Museum came close last autumn to introducing admission charges - not because the extra revenue was going to make a major dent in its projected deficit, but because it would then be able to reclaim a much larger amount of VAT. Sadly, many other important collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, have already gone down this route and they are now so heavily dependent on VAT recoveries that it will be hard to turn back.

When the National Lottery was launched, many people fondly imagined that the funding problems of the museum community would be solved. But the Lottery was never intended as a substitute for government funding - in fact, both John Major and Tony Blair have repeatedly assured us that Lottery proceeds would be "additional" to existing programmes of government expenditure. Continuing cuts in the real value of government spending on the arts and heritage have, however, made these words ring hollow. Lottery distributors have, until very recently, been limited to supporting building projects and acquisitions rather than running costs. Certainly many museums were all too visibly suffering from years of neglect, but the result is that many now have smart new extensions while struggling to keep their basic operations afloat. Changes have now been made to the Lottery legislation that will mean that money can go to people as well as things, but they will do very little to solve the fundamental problem: there is no longer enough public money being provided to meet the demands of the museum community.

The huge numbers of people who visit our museums every year (there were an estimated 110 million visits last year) are proof that museums are still enormously popular, despite the tough competition they face. If this were not reason enough to go on providing public money to support them, the Government keeps telling us that it is committed to education and to expanding access to our cultural heritage.

The solution to the funding problems faced by our museums is not simply for the Government to fork out more and more public money. Museums are not always models of good management, and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is a good deal of confusion and duplicated effort in some areas.

Like every other part of the public sector, the museum community needs to demonstrate that it can spend any money it receives efficiently. If this cannot be done, the taxpayer is entitled to demand that savings be made. One of the biggest challenges for our museums is not only to achieve efficiency, but to find ways of proving that they are doing so.

But how can museums operate efficiently when all of them face so much uncertainty about their long-term funding prospects that planning even one or two years ahead has become almost impossible? Not only must there be more stability, but the Government must replace the present ramshackle arrangements for museum funding with a system that is rational and sustainable.

It makes no sense, for example, that the Merseyside museums should be funded by central government, while the museums of Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham must rely on declining local authority support.

And why should local authorities in England and Wales be under a statutory obligation to maintain public libraries, while having complete discretion over the funding of museums? It is crazy that our impoverished university museums, some of international stature, should be dependent on university authorities whose first priorities are undergraduate teaching and research.

The Department for Culture has embarked on a "fundamental expenditure review", the outcome of which is expected in the summer. The Government is unlikely to have a better opportunity to tackle the issue of museum funding, but if progress is to be made, the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, must have support at the highest level.

There is little evidence that the problems faced by museums have found their way onto Tony Blair's political agenda. We need the Prime Minister to acknowledge publicly that museums really matter and that the Government is determined to find an effective way of supporting them in the 21st century.

The writer is Director of the National Art Collections Fund.