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Museum collections in the UK need a brand new strategy

21 February 2018

The National Portrait Gallery in London was closed all day on Monday 19th February. The official reason was ‘a private event’, which turned out to be an invitation-only fashion show. The catwalk did not take long, but installation and removal called for an all-day closure. While potentially 5,000 visitors were turned away, the NPG justified its action by pointing out that it has to generate 70 per cent of its income from its own resources, such as renting out the gallery for commercial hires.

The irony of having to close an art gallery in order to keep it open would not be lost on David Cannadine, the distinguished historian who is the lead author of a report, Why Collect?, jointly released by Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation to mark 40 years of collaboration in helping museums and galleries do precisely that: collect. This is only the latest of a series of Art Fund reports pointing to the ‘shocking’ state of affairs when it comes to institutions great and small seeking to make new acquisitions. The contrast between a booming market for both old and new art and a shrinking pool of public funds to buy it makes an obvious starting point, but Cannadine’s report goes wider and deeper.

The problem is clearly not just the banal fact that art is expensive and public institutions are poor. Cannadine argues that what was the core purpose of a museum – collecting and conserving material objects – has been down-graded in favour of its other mission – interpretation and education, and, though he does not quite put it like this, marketing the museum experience. Reviewing the bust-to-boom-to-bust trajectory of museum funding since the arrival of the National Lottery in the 1990s, Cannadine asserts that acquisitions were always a low priority. Even during ‘heady expansion’ of museums during the Blair years, the essential task of curating was being ‘neglected and side-lined in favour of delivering New Labour’s social agenda’.

He also blames the French theoretician Michel Foucault for undermining museums altogether, by presenting them as ‘citadels of power where knowledge is deliberately manipulated’. Curators are no longer seen as ‘unchallengeable authorities’ and museum morale is as bad as it was during the days of Mrs Thatcher. Thus neoliberals and post-structuralists are partners in crime, and Cannadine is definitely old school when it comes to a museum’s order of priorities. The problem is, and always has been resources: ‘which essentially means money’.

Cannadine argues that the museums sector has been underfunded, not for 30, but 300 years. Active collecting by museums was over by 2006, and, outside the nationals, it is now a passive, marginal activity, dependent on the kindness of benefactors. Since the crash of 2008 there has been a real terms decline in funding for English museums of 13 per cent. Although sales of Lottery tickets have picked up again recently, it is too late to stop the Heritage Lottery Fund severely cutting its budget for the coming financial year. The only aspect of the crisis he under-emphasises is the damage being done to local authority museums.

Cannadine has not one, but two goes at last November’s museums review by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, titled after its author, Neil Mendoza. Calling it the Mendoza Review appears to be an attempt by the DCMS to distance itself from its own publication, which in Cannadine’s view ‘offers little by way of constructive proposals as to what needs to be done’. (One suggestion being to stop building museums.) The financial facts, that make Cannadine see a glass almost empty, are a glass more than half full for Mendoza. But then Mendoza’s views ‘are not easily reconciled with the evidence that has been advanced in this [Cannadine’s] report’. Cannadine one, Mendoza nil.

So what does Cannadine propose, apart from more money for acquisitions, and the proper celebration of the excellent work of Art Fund and Wolfson? Clearly he is deeply suspicious of the ‘social agenda’ and the socio-economic role that museums are expected to play in urban regeneration. He regrets the decline in the authority of the curator, the answer being ‘strategic development of managed collections’.

But his strategy is limited in vision. A bolder approach would be to treat the national patrimony not as a series of individual, siloed hoards in competition with each other, but as one great national collection, and as a great national responsibility. Neither neoliberals nor post-structuralists would like that, but it might save the National Portrait Gallery from having to close its doors to put on fashion shows.