Looking Forward

Alistair Brown, 04.01.2017
Cuts and Brexit will shape the sector in 2017
With 2016 in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look forward, read the runes and think about what 2017 could – and should – hold for museums.

To my mind, two major trends will shape the sector this year: Brexit, and public sector cuts.

Brexit itself remains a great unknown, but as we rumble towards the likely invocation of Article 50 in March, museums have already had plenty of time to reflect on the cultural fallout of last June’s referendum and how they intend to respond.

2017 will therefore see more museums working on hot topic issues such as migration – with the Migration Museum and a series of projects funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund leading the way.

We will also see a renewed focus on providing culture in places that are deemed to have been "left behind". Hull’s year as the City of Culture is fortuitously timed in that respect, and we can also expect to hear a lot more talk (and perhaps some action?) about culture in Sunderland, Bolton and other areas, particularly in the north of England.

I think we should be cautious about stigmatising these towns and cities on account of their vote in the Referendum. Nevertheless, many of these places are facing huge challenges.

Chief among these is the rapid decline in local authority funding that has taken place over the course of this decade, and which is doing huge damage to local museums across the country.

Local authority cuts have already claimed many jobs and a number of museums as victims.

2016 saw the shock closure of five museums by Lancashire County Council and a further two by Kirklees Council. Unfortunately, that trend is set to continue in 2017 as local authorities in less well-off areas find their budgets stretched to breaking point.

The recently proposed cuts for Birmingham Museums Trust show how vulnerable non-statutory services such as museums are in these circumstances. Local authorities in Scotland are also preparing for substantial cuts, as the Scottish government fails to keep austerity at bay.

If local authorities are largely in retreat, could 2017 be the moment for national bodies to step in? In England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Museums Review will report in the spring. This is a real opportunity for government to focus resources to support museums in the future – but one thing is clear: the review will not seek to reverse the fortunes of local authorities.

Instead, expect recommendations on more philanthropy, more entrepreneurialism, and more operational freedoms for museums. You can also expect a robust set of proposals from the MA’s independent Museums Taskforce.

The other national body in England that museums will be looking to in 2017 is ACE.

Their National Portfolio scheme will provide funding for museums alongside theatres, visual arts and other arts organisations from 2018-22. For some, this will be a gamechanger – but we should be under no illusion that this funding can replace the funds lost elsewhere.

In Wales, a whole new national body is in the process of being set up. Historic Wales is supposed to generate funds for the upkeep of Wales’s historic sites and monuments – but that could well be to the detriment of National Museums Wales.

Meanwhile, the important 2015 Expert Review of Local Museum Provision continues to gather dust – despite the need and appetite for change in the sector.

These trends will make 2017 a challenging year for museums. But there is also much to look forward to – exciting exhibitions, interesting new projects and plenty of opportunities to learn, develop and share ideas.

I’ll be blogging about the best of it over the course of the year, so let’s see what happens…


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David Fleming
Director, National Museums Liverpool
05.01.2017, 10:00
Maybe we need a policy and a plan for the sector? One that goes beyond the old chestnut of making museums a statutory local authority service (that hasn't helped libraries much).
09.01.2017, 10:30
Yes, I have a horrible feeling the title may be a misquote from this Dylan Thomas poem, substituting 'white' with 'light': http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ballad-of-the-long-legged-bait/

There's an MJ piece about the report here: http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/14122016-sector-questions-clarity-of-welsh-government-vision-for-culture
Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
06.01.2017, 16:23

The Welsh Government has just published a new document: Light Springs through the Dark: A Vision for Culture in Wales. I am not sure if the title is a line of poetry by the hand of Dylan Thomas, Danny Abse or a google translate mawling of some great work by a poet writing in yr iaith such as our new welsh poet laureate, Ifor ap Glyn. Inside, it is definitely prose, which i will read now the 12 days of Christmas are over. I didn't want to put a total damper of the season of goodwill. I prefefred to read Carol Ann Duffy's Lord of Misrule, which sounded like a far better guide for the cultural sector.