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The real threat to Northern Ireland’s museums

15 May 2017

In Northern Ireland, the continued reduction of public funding is commonly cited as endangering the capacity of our museums to enrich our lives. But a more insidious threat has emerged for museums and cultural organisations in the country. The restructuring of the public sector and a lack of recognition of the value of culture in policy-making, if not challenged, could see their invaluable contributions ignored, to the detriment of our well-being.

Here, as in other parts of the UK, and indeed most other anglophone countries, the museum family comprises two parts. On the one hand are the national museums, funded directly by government, and on the other are the local museums. Formed in 1998, National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) includes the Ulster Museum, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Ulster American Folk Park, all of which are recognised under the Museum Accreditation scheme, the sector standard in the UK. Of the 41 local museums that currently meet this standard, 20 operate under the aegis of local councils and the remainder are collectively referred to as ‘independent’, reflecting their charitable status and that their leadership is outside either central or local government. The Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) is the umbrella body for the local museums and conduits government funds to the sector as part of its developmental remit as an ‘arm’s-length body’ of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

This overview points to the principal sources of funding for the sector: the Executive providing the majority of the operating costs of NMNI and NIMC, local authorities doing the same for the museums they run directly, and the independent museums functioning through a cocktail of funding that includes income from grants, admission and gift aid, events and activities, trusts and foundations, investments and some commercial activity. Additionally, the Heritage Lottery Fund has made a significant contribution to the sector over the last 20 years, mainly towards the capital infrastructure (with well over half of Northern Ireland’s museums benefitting in this regard), but also in support of regional initiatives such as Playful Museums that recently engaged children aged under five with museums.

The squeeze on central government funding has seen budget reductions of the order of 25 per cent over the last five years for NMNI and NIMC, while the country’s regimental museums face a future without significant Ministry of Defence subvention. Unlike other parts of the UK, council funding appears to be holding up; as yet the devastating impact of funding cuts to local authority-run museums in England has not been mirrored in Northern Ireland and there have not been any museum closures. Funding and income generation will always be a challenge for the sector, a point highlighted by the Mapping Trends in Local Museums survey issued by NIMC in 2016, which more optimistically also pointed to a continuing upward trend in visitor numbers and a rise in the number of people employed and volunteering in museums. However, the same survey highlights that Northern Ireland’s museums now face another and perhaps sterner test in terms of their sustainability and resilience.

A restructuring of local government in Northern Ireland came into effect in 2015. This saw the number of councils being reduced from 26 to 11, with each taking on a range of new powers and responsibilities. As a result, museums have slipped down a tier or two within the management structures and feature less significantly in council committee business. The danger is that they, as with other cultural services, find themselves more out of sight and possibly more out of mind. Similarly, the number of government departments has reduced, with most of the responsibilities of the previous Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (including the funding of NMNI and NIMC) being transferred to the Department for Communities, whose remit includes the massive areas of social welfare and housing. Consequently, culture has to compete with some big ticket agendas and there is now no minister at the Executive table with ‘culture’ in his or her title.

Prior to its suspension, the Northern Ireland Executive had been working on a further Programme for Government. The current draft has the stated aim of making ‘positive progress on a range of the most important economic and social issues facing our society’, with arts and culture featuring only as a measure for achieving one of the 14 ‘outcomes’ anticipated. Tackling economic and social issues without a commitment to cultural matters is like trying to get a three-legged stool to work with one leg missing – a difficult balancing act.

The restructuring of the instruments of state and the current policy deficit pose a real challenge to Northern Ireland’s museums. Such a devaluation of our cultural capital will have a distinct impact on the sustainability of our museums, hence the need for all concerned, but especially National Museums Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Museums Council, to jointly lead a programme of advocacy that demonstrates to the decision-makers that investing in the intrinsic responsibilities of museums – to collect, conserve, interpret,  inspire, educate and entertain – will automatically accrue social and economic benefits, whereas asking museums to be agents of social and economic change first and foremost results in a cultural deficit to be rued later.

Chris Bailey is Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Museums Council.