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Regional museums are in crisis. Can they survive?

19 March 2015

Optimism and realism. Those were the central themes at an event at the Courtauld Institute on 18 March, dovetailing with the ‘Cotton to Gold’ exhibition at Two Temple Place and exploring the future of regional museums. While several panellists spoke of the funding crisis in the sector, it was less to bemoan the situation than to advocate practical and urgent solutions.

Optimism: the five speakers agreed that there is a robust and resourceful future for regional museums – even if the museum of tomorrow may look very different from that of today. There were positive comments, too, particularly from Sarah Philp of the Art Fund, about the dynamism of the museum sector in terms of curatorial and collecting initiatives, however stretched its workforce may be. Several panellists spoke of how loyal local audiences were helping museums justify themselves to funding bodies at a time of straitened public funding: ‘you are not alone if your communities are advocating for you to your stakeholders,’ said museum consultant Piotr Bienkowski.

Realism. Realism about how the sector can respond to the tightening of the public purse. Realism about the disappointing record of the regional museums in stimulating private giving or in sustaining commercial partnerships. There was a widespread consensus that these institutions must function and be governed as businesses to survive – even if, as Sainsbury Centre director Paul Greenhalgh said, any museum needed ‘to run like a business while remembering it is not a business’. Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association, complained that too many regionals, with their substandard cafés and irrelevant shops, had failed to embrace the opportunities of trading and other third revenue.

Ellen McAdam, director of the Birmingham Museums Trust, spoke pragmatically about painful decisions the trust had made on redundancies, and about how the city’s museums still needed to do more to diversify and expand their audiences. Talking from the perspective of a university museum, Paul Greenhalgh intimated that the Department of Education’s ‘impact’ criterion for measuring higher research output and allocating further funding is soon to be extended from a 20 per cent weighting to 30 per cent. Given museums’ exhibition-making capacities and other ways of engaging with the public, he argued that this represents a clear opportunity for university museums to attract funding to their parent institutions. All the speakers advocated collaborative initiatives between national, local authority and university museums, and with other types of organisation, whether in terms of sharing artworks or other resources.

But as Piotr Bienkowski argued, plenty of regional museums do need to take a long, hard look at themselves. He suggested that too many are obstinate in the face of imminent collapse, and have their own poor governance to blame rather than the diminution of core funding. The claim that ‘we do things differently here’, he said, tends to signify chaos: poor financial controls, ignorance of legal responsibilities and so on. Some museums will have to close if they cannot set their houses in order.

Comments from the floor brought a contrasting note of pessimism. It emerged that Bournemouth Borough Council is currently consulting about restructuring the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, which is one of the country’s great single-collector museums. A member of the audience alleged that managerial responsibility for the museum may soon pass to  a ‘seafront services manager’ with no more museum sector experience than ‘metaphorically rearranging deckchairs’. And it was claimed that museum staff are gagged from speaking out about this parlous situation. Sharon Heal had complained earlier in the evening about the creeping use of the term ‘locally authority dependent museum’: unlike other forms of dependency, she said, museums are not problems that need to be fixed.

Related Articles

Inquiry: Hard times for the UK’s regional museums? (Jack Wakefield)

The Apollo Podcast September: 40 Under 40, Isaac Julien, and museums in crisis

Community conscious? ‘Cotton to Gold’ explores industry and philanthropy (Wessie du Toit)

Arts Council Funding: Winners and Losers (Maggie Gray)

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY 2.0)