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Could national museums in the UK do more to be truly national?

25 November 2019

Are the largely London-based institutions funded by central government doing enough to share their collections and expertise with the rest of the country – and what lessons could they learn from regional museums?

Bendor Grosvenor

The United Kingdom has one of the greatest publicly owned art collections in the world, but it faces an unprecedented crisis. Some of the collections are indeed beautifully displayed, in busy museums with world-class facilities. Yet much of it is shown in regional museums which struggle to keep the lights on. And of course most of it – more than 80 per cent for oil paintings – is kept in storage.

Apollo readers will be familiar with the causes of this crisis. Largely it is due to funding cuts over the last decade. While most of our ‘national’ museums – that is, the small number funded by central government – are better off than ever before (though they plead poverty), even major regional galleries have faced savage cuts from local councils, under whose control they fall. We have reached the point where, unless we act soon, large parts of the country will be left with no museum provision at all.

There will probably never be enough money, but there are other ways to help solve the crisis, if we think imaginatively. Primarily, we must think of our national art collection, and the museums that show it, as a whole. Only then can we begin to even out some of the disparities between ‘national’ and regional museums, not just in terms of funding, but also in terms of the depth of their collections.

Government is unlikely to help do this. We must look to the national museums to lead the way. However, there is in fact no such thing as a truly national museum, at least when it comes to art. In reality, almost all of our ‘national’ museums are London museums. Despite the occasional satellite, such as the V&A’s impressive but object-lite outpost in Dundee, they think in terms of their London audience. They have London-oriented trustees. Their stores are in London. This is not to say that they do not already help regional museums. I could fill this whole column with laudable initiatives such as the National Gallery’s Masterpiece Tours.

Such initiatives, however, go only so far. It is time for a revolution in how we conceive, maintain and display our national collection. The solution is straightforward, but it means that the era of our national museums hoarding the nation’s best art has to end.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the regional towns and cities in the UK saw a boom in museum construction, driven by municipal pride and wealth. From Aberdeen to Truro, the UK is blessed with uniquely impressive museum buildings. Most have significant collections, but I hope they’ll forgive me if I say that sometimes the masterpiece ratio is not high, or at least not high enough to draw new audiences consistently.

The London galleries, on the other hand, have more masterpieces in storage than they know what to do with and spend millions of pounds a year to keep them there. The Tate keeps more than two-thirds of its 300 oil paintings by Turner in storage at any one time. By contrast, there are only two publicly owned Turner oils in the whole of Scotland.

We need a dramatic redistribution of art across the UK. New collections for regional museums – and I don’t mean token loans designed to proclaim loudly how munificent the lending institution is, but sizeable long-term deposits – would galvanise local funders, and energise audiences. Lend it, and they will come.

Such a redistribution would of course require additional funding, at least initially. But, more importantly, it needs a change in attitude, and that comes free. If the national museums could stop thinking about their collections as somehow ‘theirs’, and instead as part of the wider nation’s, everyone would benefit. Ask any regional museum curator how easy it is to secure loans from major London institutions, and they will tell you of draconian display and environmental conditions that make borrowing objects and works of art unaffordable. Certainly, risk needs to be managed but, in reality, art is pretty tough, and has survived for hundreds of years without meeting a registrar, or hearing the phrase ‘best practice’.

The regions have the galleries. The London institutions have the art. It is time for the two to meet.

Bendor Grosvenor is an art historian and broadcaster.

Charles Saumarez Smith

Having worked for most of my career in national museums, I have watched with admiration how most of them have become less London-centric during the last couple of decades and more inclined to work with museums outside the capital, particularly in making loans and sharing their collections. The British Museum, for example, has a page on its website which shows the full range of its loans to other collections, including a case study of its collaboration with National Museums Scotland in organising a tour of the Lewis Chessmen around museums and galleries in northern Scotland. In the Museum Partnership Report, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, it was reported that, in 2017/18, 60,022 objects were on loan from national museums to more than 900 non-national institutions (with many more loans made for research purposes). It is an impressive record of close working relationships.

However, if one looks impartially at the pattern of development of museums in the country overall, it is obvious that there is an essential imbalance. For historical reasons, central government funding goes to the national museums, nearly all of which, with the exception of National Museums Liverpool, are based in London and Edinburgh (I am, of course, aware that some of them have branch museums outside London, including Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives and the National Railway Museum in York and the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, both of which are part of the Science Museum Group). Over the last two decades, the national museums have thrived through relatively stable or gradually decreasing central government funding (funding went slightly up under the Labour government and more significantly down during the years of austerity) and through their ability to attract private funding through capital gifts, corporate sponsorship and their Friends’ programmes. The London museums are bigger, better run and have many more visitors than in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, the big regional museums have, in general, struggled, ever since rate-capping was introduced. As non-statutory services, their funding has been cut repeatedly. There are exceptions to this picture of imbalance. There are many excellent regional museums and galleries, small and large, outside London. Of the ones I know well and visit reasonably frequently, I hugely admire the exhibition programmes of Turner Contemporary, Hastings Contemporary, Pallant House, Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. But it would be hard to argue that, for example, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is still, as it used to be, the equivalent of the national museums in terms of its range and depth of curatorial expertise and its ability to mount and tour exhibitions internationally. So, the question is: is there anything that can, and should, be done to rectify this imbalance?

The national museums have, for good reasons, always resisted central government control, knowing that it would likely put them at a financial disadvantage in the long-term if national funding was spread more widely. In the unlikely event that I were appointed as the new minister for culture after the election, I would look at the possibility of bringing a small number of extra major museums into the system of central government funding through grant-in-aid: my candidates would be Glasgow, Newcastle, York, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Norwich – in other words, the museums in the major regional cities.

I would make it a condition of this happening that it did not result in a cut in the grants to the existing national museums, which would require some level of close working relationship with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I would treat it as a new initiative in order to rectify the deep and destructive cultural imbalance between the capital and the regions, which has had such a corrosive effect on our political culture in the last two decades. I might be attacked by the directors of the national museums who would line up outside my door and threaten their resignation. But I would tell them that it was in the national interest to create more institutions like theirs, and not have national museums concentrated in London and Edinburgh.

Charles Saumarez Smith is a former director of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

From the December 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.