A future for the past

Christoph Vogtherr, Issue 115/03, p14, 04.03.2015
The role of arts and culture is increasingly undervalued
The Wallace Collection was bequeathed to the nation by Lady Wallace and opened its doors to the public in 1900. To honour the conditions of this and to meet the requirements of the government, the trustees undertook to safeguard the artworks and make them available for the public to enjoy in perpetuity.

In return, they received funds from the government with this mutually beneficial arrangement being based on trust, common sense and an appreciation of the artworks.

So what has changed? Why do we find ourselves in a position today where the role of arts and culture is undervalued and the future of our museums and galleries is under threat?

Over time, it appears that trust and common sense have been obscured by a plethora of targets and key performance indicators. The obsessive requirement for linear business plans and risk registers sits at odds with an enthusiasm for the arts, which is intuitive and risk-taking.

If we are to question and challenge our future, we have to have an awareness and understanding of our past. This is what museums can contribute to society and to individuals. I believe this was understood and valued by those who created the Wallace Collection and many other museums in Britain.

It is a great sadness that while museums and galleries have worked hard to safeguard artworks and increase accessibility and visitor numbers, we now witness national and local governments systematically reducing funding and commitments to the arts.

Lottery money supports capital projects, but revenue funding to museums is rapidly reducing. Our grant-in-aid has been reduced by more than a third over the past five years, and the cuts continue.

The purpose of museums is slowly giving way to income generation targets. Financial erosion is moving organisations towards collapse.

The speed of this destructive development is a huge concern, as is the lack of public awareness of the situation and the long-term impact of these reductions. Artworks will become vulnerable and will eventually deteriorate and/or be sold. Knowledge about collections, cultures and the public is in danger of getting lost.

The right of everyone to have access to national collections will be sacrificed if paid entrance is introduced. These principles of safeguarding the artworks and making them available are at the heart of the Wallace Collection and the purpose of every museum. Once lost, these precious sources of learning and inspiration are gone for generations.

Museums appear reluctant to articulate how far-reaching the impact of present and future funding cuts will be. We need to increase debate, communicate more clearly and make the case for culture in society more strongly.

We need to ensure a greater awareness and appreciation of the role that the arts play in the shaping and establishing of culture, humanity and values.

We must be honest, direct and keep a healthy distance from PR and media spin, which is taking over a critical public discourse and a respect for the arts.

Knowledge is acquired over time and ideas are born out of reflection, so we need to be wary of the well-honed soundbite, clever strapline and the overpowering voice of digital mediation that suggests instant gratification.

We have a responsibility to provide opportunities for everyone to be human beings rather than mere beings, and that humanity, honesty and human experience is to be found in museums. Museums connect us to the past, to collective and individual experiences, and in so doing ensure our future.

Christoph Vogtherr is the director of the Wallace Collection, London

The Wallace Collection is hosting a discussion on the impact of budget cuts and the future of museums on 9 March. Speakers include Christoph Vogtherr; critic, curator and academic Robert Hewison; David Anderson, the president of the Museums Association; and Maria Balshaw, the director of the Whitworth Gallery and Manchester City Galleries


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Chris Wood
MA Member
19.03.2015, 11:47
Thank you, Christoph Vogtherr and 'Anonymous' both. We really need to stand up for the real value of museums, not how they do other people's jobs for them. Ticking the boxes of social services, as in the 'Museums Change Lives' agenda, desperately chasing the National Curriculum to get a sub from education budgets, or turning over galleries to paying functions during normal opening hours, all undermine the core roles of museums. When decision-makers look at museums and are told by those self-same museums that they are all about doing other people's jobs, then they can be forgiven for thinking that museums have no intrinsic value. We know that is not true, so we should be saying so!
17.03.2015, 19:40
Your MA column is so true. The dumbing down and cuts that have taken place in the sector, I think that, collectively, we will come to regret. Efficiency savings, sure, that makes sense, but it has gone too far now.
There was a very interesting article in the Guardian 14/03/2015, about Bill Bryson, and referring to his book Notes From A Small Island. Being an ex-pat Canadian, long resident in the UK, I could identify with much of what he says in that book, and his reasons, like mine, for loving the UK so much. The link to the article is further down, but it is worth quoting from the article here, it has resonance with your MA column:
“While he says that in Notes From A Small Island he “unhesitatingly took the piss, the book was unquestionably fond of Britain and the new book will be the same. Not that I don’t find things to complain about.” He repeats how much he “really, really hates this age of austerity. This is the sixth richest country in the world. We can afford to have things. When I first came here this country was much poorer, but much better looked after. Roundabouts had flowerbeds in them and things like that. There is this mania that we can’t afford things, which is not true. If we could afford it then we can certainly afford it now and as a society we can afford to put some geraniums in a planter. And if government really can’t afford to meet its bills then it should tax us more. It shouldn’t be cutting all the time and diminishing the quality of life for everybody. Many people can afford to pay more in taxes or in fees and I would rather we spent more freely and taxed more freely.””

I think that collectively we will come to regret much of the austerity measures. These are the sorts of things that need to be done; tax wealth; scrap Trident; invest in education, public transport and infrastructure and services, for the common good. There is a general election coming up soon, and a crucial UN conference in December on climate change. Let’s vote for the things that make life worth living, and not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.