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Double Decker Banter

exeter busOne of my regular themes on this blog is the future of museums in the age of austerity.  How can cultural organisations survive and still remain relevant and welcoming places for visitors?  Well today I met a museum colleague from the south coast on the top deck of an Exeter bus.  She had some interesting things to say about the future of museums.  Her insights were:

Museums do some darn good work with schools, families, older and vulnerable people.  But for most of the time this work is largely low profile and key funders in these areas are unaware of the role they play.

Local authorities are reducing their funding for museums, whether this is council run museums or grants to independents.  But there are still ways the public sector can support museums  through in kind benefits or social capital.

All too often museums pursue the latest pot of money, rather than act in a more strategic way.  This approach tends to mean that projects and initiatives can be rather short termist.  Today it maybe funding for working with war veterans and next year the priority for funders could be carers.

My co-passenger suggested that a more holistic approach is required to ensure long term success.  Local partnerships need to be nurtured and relationships grown.  When funding opportunities do spring up, they should be sustainable and continue to benefit the museum and its partners for the long haul.  Potential partners could be public bodies which do not usually acknowledge the work of museums, such as Children’s Services in Councils or national bodies (e.g. Department for Education).  The local school maybe a good partner but they rarely have any significant funds.

At that point we reached our destination and we had to disembark, but it was a stimulating conversation on the top deck. From my point of view I will be returning to Christchurch where the museum is an active member of the Dementia Action Alliance and we are working on ways how we can utilise our collections and venue to support the growing need of dementia sufferers and their carers.


Red House Museum a founder member of the Christchurch Dementia Action Alliance 



Winners, losers and the rest

Like many of us the UK government’s spending review announcement yesterday will have a significant impact, and museums will feel these effects.  Over the next 5 years many UK museums will look very different from today and in some cases they may even not exist.  As a visitor this may all seem a bit marginal, is not the most important thing about a museum is if its exciting, friendly, pretty or full of family fun.  All of which is true.  But so is the way museums are supported and funded.  The public purse has provided a lot of support to museums in the past, and this support is changing.  Although more detail is to be announced yesterday’s spending review announcement created winners and losers.


Pretty: Holbourne Museum’s Lantern Procession


Friendly: Tullie House 2015 winner of Kids in Museums

Winners: Metropolitan, national museums and projects favoured by Whitehall did well.  The nationals, like the British Museum, Science Museum and V&A will received funding to keep free admissions.  Manchester museums benefited from the current government’s idea of a northern powerhouse.  Other favoured subjects such as military themed venues and the colonisation of the America’s also gets significant investment.  Another winner was the Arts Council which only saw a standstill budget in real terms (in these times that is good!).  This should allow ACE to continue to support the museums sector with major grants and nurturing organisations towards a more sustainable future.

Losers: The majority of publicly funded museums will be receiving severe cuts as a result of the reduction in local government funding.  Local government has taken a big hit at the budget, and the  repercussions for low priority areas (museums and culture) will be harsh.  Many local authority museums or museums that receive grants from local government will have to adapt or will perish.  The biggest impact will be on mid sized organisations in poorer areas, where income generation streams are going to be hard to grow.

The rest:  Most museums are neither nationals or local authority funded, and the spending review has not had any significant impact.  The larger independent museums have been lobbying for tax breaks to encourage more charitable giving and reduction in VAT.  Neither have been announced yesterday, although there have been vague soundings of exploring tax incentives for museums and galleries.

Who pays for free admission to museums in the UK?

The Director of Derby Museums makes an impassioned plea for keeping free admission to museums.  However it is worth remembering most museums do not have free admission (its mainly restricted to national and local authority museums and the smallest of volunteer run organisations).  Indeed most independent museums (varying from your local volunteer run museum like Southend Pier Museum to a large visitor attraction like Beaulieu Motor Museum charge).

Its also true that museums that find it easier to charge admission or raise income (from corporate hire, retail or catering) are more likely to be in affluent areas or places that attract tourists.  While places like Derby tend to suffer more from public sector funding cuts and are not affluent.

Source: Who pays for free admission to museums in the UK?

What is Culture For?

As austerity continues to strike public services in the UK, some may say why should the state fund museums, or any cultural institutions for that matter?  This argument has been raging in its current form ever since the recession began in 08. Theresa May’s announcement to ban extremist groups and behaviour got me thinking.  The latest measures to combat domestic extremism also stressed the importance of the state’s role to promote British values.  When pushed what these were, the Home Secretary pointed to a respect for the rule of law and tolerance.  However these can hardly be considered exclusively British values, most of Europe, North America and the Old Commonwealth share these broad sentiments.

But what are British values, and how do you define them? Not easy, especially if you are a government minister with a 5 minute slot on the radio. Perhaps a role for museums?  Although I would be the last to encourage the heritage sector to become a propaganda tool for the state, museums can, and do, explore our community, culture and even our values.  One example is the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.  It charts our changing values, warts and all.  200 years ago is was acceptable to defend and profit from slavery.  The museum shows how anti slavery campaigners helped abolish this trade in human misery.

Ignatius Sancho an eighteenth century Black Briton

Ignatius Sancho, writer, slave, abolitionist & the first known Black Briton to have the vote

There are lots of other reasons why museums are important, education, tourism, health and economic regeneration to name but a few, but perhaps museums can help remind us what makes us British.

Branding Visitor Experiences

The Bombay Sapphire Distillery Visitor Centre is an example where branding meets the visitor centre experience.  If you are not partial to cocktails or the odd Gin & Tonic, Bombay Sapphire is a well known blue glassed London Dry Gin.  Although the distillery is in no sense a museum, as a visitor experience it has a lot to offer.

a chance to explore the botanicals that infuse the gin

a chance to explore the botanicals that infuse the gin

Bombay Sapphire recently moved to Laverstoke Mill, which was originally the home of the Portals Paper Mill since the eighteenth century.  The Bombay brand has only been around since 1960, and they are keen to stress the heritage of their brand, so a historic mill provides an excellent new setting.

Audio point

Audio point

Visitors can stroll through the distillery with their map guide which also activates audio points located throughout the site providing additional information.  There are plenty of chances to get to grips with all the processes of creating gin, as well as a guided tour of the gin stills by the enthusiastic staff.  And before you ask, your entry ticket includes a complimentary gin based cocktail, the ultimate in interactivity.  Although the distillery explores the history and botany of gin, no doubt the aim of this visitor centre is for Barcardi (the owners of Bombay Gin brand) to promote this brand.

Museums and the last Coalition Budget

The last 5 years have created tough times for many museums, as austerity has bitten, effecting public funding, struggling tourism demand and visitors spending less on discretionary items.  Probably the biggest measure to impact many museums will be the proposed budget cuts to governmental departments for the next 2 years.   This will impact, local government funded museums, nationals and the national museums quango – the Arts Council for England, which provides revenue grants to the larger non national museums.  Local authority museums have been having a hard time, as this part of the public sector has been particularly hard hit, and unfortunately Councils tend to slash budgets of less high profile services.  Think about it, if you run a Council, you are likely to protect children’s or old people’s services compared to the local art gallery, indeed the pot hole budget will get a higher priority.

Osbourne's 2015 Budget

George’s 2015 Budget

However the Chancellor has offered some crumbs of comfort for a select few.  The RAF museum at Hendon will get £2.5 million for renovation and a new museum will be created at Filton to recognise the UK’s flying heritage.  There is also some tweaking to assist smaller charities (many smaller museums fit into this category) so they can claim a bit more tax back.  But despite the lobbying of the tourism sector there were no exemptions from VAT or support to assist museums to increase their income from philanthropy.

RAF Hendon ready for relaunch

RAF Hendon ready for relaunch

As the economy starts to recover museums will have to look to themselves to raise new income whether from visitors, corporate giving or the Lottery; but not the public purse (unless of course your are Hendon or Filton).

Fort Nelson at half term

British 18" rail gun

A British 18″ railway gun

Fort Nelson is a national museum outpost above Portsmouth. A mid Victorian fort built to defend southern England against French invasion, it now houses the foremost artillery collection of the Royal Armouries.  The museum still offers free admission, and when i visited there was a steady flow of families, hardly surprising as it was half term. The highlights were the the One O’Clock firing of a British 25 pounder gun, the Iraqi super gun and the tunnels underneath the fort. The fort is a  mixture of modern museum galleries exploring the history of the fort, warfare and garrison life as well as a chance to explore the decaying ruins.  The site easily swallows up a multitude of visitors in a maze of galleries, tunnels and ramparts.  Something a bit different and worth a visit.

Early modern "Dragon Cannon"

One of the main galleries with an early modern “Dragon Cannon”

Derby Museums Budget travails 2015-16

Creating museum Trusts from the public sector may work but they need time to change their business model to succeed

tonybutler's blog

in December 2014 Derby City Council Announced it was reducing funding support to Derby Museums Trust by 26%. Councils across England are having their budgets squeezed to the pips, largely a result of the Austerity policies of the Westminster government.  Derby City Council is under extreme pressure to provide services in the city, but the Museums Trust felt this level of reduction was too swift, too soon.

The Trust launched a public campaign to influence the City Council to reconsider their decision. Over 6,500 people signed a petition aimed at reducing the cuts. This triggered a full Council debate on 28 January 2015. Here is the text of a speech I gave outlining the aims of the petition and my concerns about the threats to future activity within Derby Museums.

Museums and galleries are not about disposable art, they are about what makes a city and also gives it it’s unique identity

Our museums…

View original post 885 more words

Leaving the nest

Hampshire Cultural Trust is born!  It came to life in November 2014 out of the Hampshire County Council’s Arts & Museums Service.  Still majority funded by local authority councils, but with a commitment of reducing core grants over the next 4 years from the public sector.

Hampshire Cultural Trust 2014-

Hampshire Cultural Trust 2014-

The creation of a Charitable Trust has been taken by other museum and art organisations over the years.  The Black Country Museum became a Trust in 1985¹, when it was receiving a council grant of £50,000 per annum (thats over £155,000 in todays money), now it receives £65,000 from Dudley Metropolitan Borough.  The Bowes Museum in the north east became a Trust in 2000¹ when Durham County Council funded it annually to the tune of £468,000 (worth £719,000 today), in 2012 the County contributed £457,000.  In both cases these museums were able to increase income from other sources including, the Arts Council, donations and commercial sources.

The Natural History gallery at the Horniman

The Natural History Gallery at the Horniman

However becoming a charity has not been the only option for local authority run museums.  Both the Geffrye and Horniman Museums in London were run by local authorities until 1989 when they received a combined grant of £1,583,000 per annum¹ (thats £3.7 million today).  They were subsequently transferred over to central government and sponsored by the Department of Culture Media and Sport, in effect becoming mini national museums, and treated in the same way as the British Museum or the National Gallery.  In 2013 they received combined grants of  £5.8 million from central government.  In both cases they are thriving, and the need to diversify is not as pressing as for their charitable museum colleagues.

In a later posting I will look at whether this matters and what are the consequences of leaving the public sector for museums.

¹Babbidge, Adrian. Moving to Museum Trusts: Learning from Experience. London. MLA. 2006

Nazi War Loot and museums

In the last couple of years the German art world has been rocked by the case of the discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt’s major art collection. Cornelius was a recluse who had hidden over 1200 twentieth century masterpieces. He had inherited them from his father Hildebrand who benefited by being one of the Nazi’s approved art dealers. During the 1930s German Jews suddenly had to sell art work, and Hildebrand was able to purchase these items often at a discount. Since Hildebrand’s death in the 50s his son Cornelius hoarded the collection, occasionally selling pieces to maintain a livelihood, he had no other means of income. It was not until 2012 when the tax authorities in Germany chanced upon Cornelius, when the hoard was uncovered.

Josef Gockeln, the mayor of Düsseldorf; Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand; and Paul Kauhausen, director of Düsseldorf’s municipal archives, circa 1949.

Josef Gockeln, the mayor of Düsseldorf; Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand; and Paul Kauhausen, director of Düsseldorf’s municipal archives, circa 1949.

So what has this got to do with museums, and UK museums at that?  Well every Accredited museum in the UK (and there are over 1500) has to agree to the statement of principles on the ‘Spoliation of Works of Art during the Nazi, Holocaust and World War II period’. Whether you are the British Museum or a little community museum run by volunteers, they are all obliged to adhere to these spoliation principles.  If they come across any Nazi War loot within their collection they are obliged to investigate and inform the appropriate authorities, and if necessary return them to the rightful owners.  The Gurlitt case highlights that Nazi loot is still relevant today. Indeed in the UK there is a Cultural Property Advice portal that assists museums with dealing with such matters.

A Picasso from the Gurlitt collection

A Picasso from the Gurlitt collection

Is that the end of the matter? Maybe not. Some of the Gurlitt collections were sold to state Art Galleries & Archives in Germany in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and they are not keen to return them to the original owners or their children. Although the collection was amassed by forced sale in Nazi Germany, this is disputed by Galleries. Hildebrand Gurlitt was an art dealer and may have felt he was merely doing good trade with desperate sellers, albeit in tumultuous times.  It has also been difficult to return these artworks to their original owners because they have remained hidden from public view by hoarders like Gurlitt or off display in Art Galleries. Furthermore Germany has a 30 year statue of limitations. If you have not put in a claim within 30 years of the spoliation you lose your right to claim. Even if it was impossible to claim for an artwork while it was hidden from the public. Finally some Galleries claim that these works should remain in the public domain and not be returned to the original owners as they are far too important to remain in private hands.  This public benefit claim is surprisingly similar to the one justifying the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles remaining in the British Museum and not returning to the Parthenon in Athens. Thats another blog.

The British Museum's Parthenon Marbles on loan to St Petersburg , but not Athens

The British Museum’s Parthenon Marbles on loan to St Petersburg , but not Athens