Great North Museum Hancock: the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums says reduced funding means more time is being taken up by activities such as income generation

So much for end of austerity

Caroline Parry, Issue 118/12, 01.12.2018
The era of austerity may have been declared over, but the sector doubts the benefits will be felt for years, and still fears for the future of some museums. By Caroline Parry
Local authority museums are braced for continued funding cuts and threats of closures, despite chancellor Philip Hammond declaring in his budget of 29 October that the era of austerity has come to an end.

Speaking after the budget was announced, Lord Porter, the chairman of the Local Government Association, said the plans showed the government was starting to listen for calls for investment, but it would not be enough to tackle the severe funding pressures faced by councils.

Tony Butler, the executive director at Derby Museums, an independent trust that receives a grant from Derby City Council to manage its museums service, asks: “What does the end of austerity look like – less severe cuts? If more cuts come, then some local authority museums will close, as a tipping point is coming. No one wants to close their big museums, but we can’t just keep hoping that something will turn up.”

John Roles, the head of museums and galleries at Leeds City Council, also doubts whether the effects of the end of austerity will be felt for some time. “I’m not sure how long local authorities that have supported culture to date will be able to continue, in light of ongoing reductions in funding, and increased demands on them,” he says.

Arts Council England (ACE) worked with many local authority venues through its 2014 to 2018 Museum Resilience Fund. From 1 April, 57 museums became ACE National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) for the first time. From 2018 to 2022, the arts council will invest £36.6m per annum in museums, which is 9% of the total NPO spend.  

ACE also offers grants for other regional museums, as well as providing development support and specialist expertise, and giving money to Sector Support Organisations.

In September, ACE and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) announced plans to take a more joined-up approach to the issues that face museums. Kate Bellamy, the director of museums at ACE, says: “Local authority museums are working hard to diversify funding, and many local authorities really support their museums. Those having to withdraw funding are often in very difficult circumstances.” She says ACE will continue to support the sector where it is needed.

“It has been financially difficult for many museums, but we continue to see such brilliant work,” she says. “We want to support museums, so that they can use their collections and knowledge to benefit even more people.”

The lasting impact of austerity varies by museum service and area of the country, but there remains a sense that museums are doing their best under the circumstances.

Iain Watson, the director at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam) and a Museums Association board member, says: “Many museums are extremely successful at managing the process and increasing their activities. But it gets harder and harder to do more. You do reach plateaus.”

New normal

Reduced staffing levels and opening hours, introducing admission fees and a significantly increased focus on revenue generation are markers of the new normal that local authority museums inhabit. That is not to say that the wider sector has not been similarly affected.

Janita Bagshawe, the director of Royal Pavilion & Museums in Brighton, which is transferring to trust status, says: “It has impacted museums, regardless of their governance, in prompting new thinking about the purpose of museums in the 21st century, and therefore the programmes and projects that they deliver and how they engage with audiences and communities.”

Twam’s Watson says there are two forces at work. The age of austerity has helped museums to become more resilient and more engaged in the big issues of the day but, at the same time, reduced funding means more time is taken up by activities such as income generation.

"Museums are also trying to respond to the other elements that have disappeared from public services, such as health and wellbeing, and preventative measures,” Watson says. “We need to look at how funding for that is mandated.”

With the HLF publishing a new Strategic Funding Framework at the end of January, and Brexit firmly on the horizon, the only thing that is clear is that further challenges should be expected.