You might expect to go to a hustings to hear each of the main parties vying for your vote and battling it out over their competing plans for the next parliament. Not so with the Museum Hustings organised by the National Museum Directors’ Council and the Museums Association at the Imperial War Museum on 30 April. Instead this event turned into something of a face-off between the museums sector and the outgoing culture minister Ed Vaizey over his record in office.
Proceedings were somewhat hobbled by the absence of a real challenger to the coalition viewpoint. Shadow culture minister Chris Bryant couldn’t attend because of a diary mix-up and was replaced at the last minute by Lord Wilf Stevenson of the shadow DCMS team. He stayed only long enough to make a few astute points about the damage caused by the cuts and by the closure of support bodies for cultural institutions, the lack of arts education in the curriculum, and Labour’s promise for a Prime Minister’s Committee for the Arts. The fact that Labour has promised further cuts to the arts was unmentioned, but not unnoticed.
With the Labour chair then empty, only the coalition duo of Ed Vaizey and the underwhelming Baroness Bonham-Carter of the Lib Dems remained to field questions.
A raft of thoughtful points followed from an audience of museum professionals who have suffered five years of cuts, increasing regional imbalances in funding, a growing risk to museum collections, and an ongoing struggle with issues of workforce diversity. Meanwhile, a combative Ed Vaizey played his part by doling out home truths about the need for austerity: ‘You’re living in fantasy-land if you think there will be more money [in the next parliament].’
It might have been an entertaining clash were there not so much at stake. Vaizey pointed out that responsibility for local authority museum cuts lies with local authorities. He disputed the need for a government-led strategy for museums in England, in spite of the clear benefits of such strategies in the devolved nations. Indeed, his argument was clear – he feels that government responsibility is limited to the national museums and, perhaps, the Major Partner Museums – and that even in these cases, the ‘arms-length’ principle relieves the government of the obligation to work strategically to ensure that museums play their part in delivering broader policy goals. The sole ray of hope came from his possible openness to promoting tax credits for museums in the next parliament.
It would have been useful to hear Labour’s point of view on all of this – but it wasn’t to be. Jane Bonham Carter of the Lib Dems told us that her party ‘would not cut back to the bone like the Tories,’ and claimed that the Creative Industries Council set up under the coalition government was helping to deliver cross government support for arts and culture. But her point was somewhat undermined when she pointed out that she ‘had no power, but did have a voice.’
So perhaps we didn’t learn much that we didn’t already know from the main three parties. If you’re deciding between them based on their museums policies, the choice remains one about the level of austerity that will be visited upon the sector. But cuts notwithstanding, can we expect greater engagement and greater empathy from our politicians? The jury is still out.
Alistair Brown is Policy Officer at the Museums Association.
Will any UK politicians speak up about culture? (Thomas Marks)
Regional museums are in crisis: can they survive? (Thomas Marks)
Arts Council Funding: Winners and Losers (Maggie Gray)