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Should Britain stop building museums?

29 January 2018

A recent government report says that Britain should stop building new museums and focus on the ones it already has. But with limited public funding available, how far can existing museums diversify and grow?

Alistair Brown
Policy Officer at the Museums Association

We have grown used to a steady stream of glitzy new museums being established around the country in recent years. These aren’t just extensions or refurbishments, but whole new organisations being brought to life: Turner Contemporary in Margate, Titanic Belfast, National Civil War Centre, Newark, Aerospace Bristol, and more, have all made their mark. This year will see yet more openings, including the much-anticipated V&A Museum of Design in Dundee.

This building boom has been sustained in large part by lottery funding. In the last decade, museums in England have been awarded an average of £91m per year from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Over three quarters of this total has been spent on capital projects, and a sizeable portion has gone on the construction of entirely new museums and galleries.

As a rule, this flurry of building has been a good thing. Most new museums and galleries have flourished, giving us some fine new architecture and highly regarded organisations that are making a real difference to their communities. The Hepworth Wakefield, this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year winner, is something of a standard bearer for this movement, demonstrating how a new gallery can reinvigorate a town.

But, increasingly, funders and policymakers are asking if the creation of major new museums should come to an end. After all, the UK already has over 2,600 museums, from major London-based national institutions to tiny hidden gems. In their varied buildings and collections, all of human and natural history is represented. Meanwhile, the public purse is less generous than it once was and new museum projects are harder to get off the ground. Could it be that we have reached peak-museum?

The recent Mendoza Review of Museums in England seemed to hint at this idea when it recommended in November that HLF should be ‘prioritising funding in existing estate’ and ‘should only support the creation of new museums in areas and communities with a demonstrable need for them.’

In calling for refocusing resources on existing museums, the author of the Museums Review, Neil Mendoza, is reflecting a changing mood among the public and within the museums sector itself.  Policy-makers know very well that support for expensive new museums is harder to build and sustain in a time of economic uncertainty and public sector cuts. Blackpool Council discovered this last year as its plan to turn the Winter Gardens into a new museum and attraction hit the rocks over doubts about its sustainability and wavering public support.

Many in the museums sector believe that renovating existing buildings and working with existing collections must take priority. The continued promotion of exciting but risky new builds simply doesn’t sit right in a time of austerity, when existing museums are struggling to keep the doors open and maintain their skills and expertise. This need not mean an end to exciting new museum projects – the rebuilding of the Whitworth and the renovation of Derby Silk Mill could both be considered as investment in existing estate. But the direction of travel seems clear: we need to make the most of the museums we already have.

For organisations looking to establish new museum projects, things are going to be harder in the next few years. More than ever, such projects will have to clearly set out the ‘demonstrable need’ from audiences and communities if they hope to gain public funding.

Unfortunately, HLF is also facing a financial crunch of its own, which will limit the availability of funding for all museums. Lottery receipts are declining rapidly, and HLF announced at the end of 2017 that it will disburse almost 40 per cent less next year than it did this year. It has already put a temporary halt to major grants in 2018–19, which have been the normal source of funding for large-scale capital projects.

It seems likely that the museum boom may slow down in the years to come. But if we are to build fewer new museums, we must also devote more resources to creating a renaissance in the museums that we already have.

Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Ed Vaizey
Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries from 2010–16

There are more than 2,600 museums in England. Together they house some 200 million objects, the vast majority of which are in storage. Nuggets like these emerge from Neil Mendoza’s superb review of museums, which I commissioned as one of my last acts as Culture Minister, and which was published at the end of last year. It is a modern day Domesday Book, containing the first detailed snapshot of the museums sector for many years, a treasure trove of information from which many innovative policies could and should emerge.

While Mendoza is reluctant to commit to prescriptive policies, and with no new money available, some clear themes emerge.  The first – dull but essential – is the need for better coordination. With so many different providers and funders of museum services, there is room for a strategy that ensures that every museum has the chance to shine and prosper. The report also calls for a greater focus on diversity – both in relation to the museums’ staff and visitors – a further push to digitise collections and services, and, my own personal obsession, increased access to museum storage.

One point that deserves greater attention is Mendoza’s call to stop building new museums – or, as he more subtly puts it, ‘prioritis[e] funding in existing estate’. This little grenade has not yet exploded into a full-scale row, but it should catalyse a proper debate on what we should be paying for. A century ago, there were already just over 500 museums, and even in the last decade, an age of austerity, the number of museums has grown by three per cent. Even when museum closures are highlighted, detailed examination often reveals that the collection has simply moved to a more suitable venue.

So the question needs to be asked: should we use scarce resources to fund a new museum, or should we use them to enhance what we already have? I don’t want to be a back-seat driver to the newly appointed arts minister Michael Ellis. Mendoza himself would like to see spare capital used to fill up the backlog of repairs in our major museums, which is a worthy task. The Treasury could easily give a big one-off capital grant for this, the beauty being that capital expenditure doesn’t add to the deficit.

I would support Mendoza’s sentiment, but I would also prefer to see the money spent in other, more innovative ways. I am a big fan of the national museums having a greater presence in the regions. Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool, the Science Museums of York, Bradford, and Manchester, and the upcoming V&A in Dundee are all ways of ensuring that the national collections are available to all (though arguably the V&A Dundee is a new museum which I have set myself up to admonish). Money should be spent strengthening their links with important regional museums and even in some cases rebranding them and bringing the latter within the national fold.

There is a huge opportunity to open up storage (I told you I was obsessed). A real partnership between national and regional museums and universities could see centres of excellence spring up in existing sites, such as the Science Museum in Wroughton, and the British Library in Boston Spa, where collections of specific kinds could be housed, conservation expertise built up, and informal public access transformed.

The digital transformation needs to continue. Many museums are doing excellent work, and their expertise needs to be disseminated far and wide. Not only should we digitise as much of our collections as possible (and make the images freely available), but we should also share and use visitor data much more effectively, in order to attract new audiences.

Finally, we really need to challenge the bricks and mortar motif of the museum itself.  Objects need to come out from behind their Victorian façades and go to where people are more likely to stumble across them. Is it really blasphemy to imagine a few world-class objects being housed in shopping centres, to entice and excite the many people who still believe that museums are not for them? Who’s up for a Whistler in Westfield?

From the February issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

The original version of the article stated that The Public in West Bromwich received support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is not the case – it received funding from Arts Council England.