Could Budget Cuts Finish Off London’s Smaller Museums?

By James FitzGerald Last edited 45 months ago
Could Budget Cuts Finish Off London’s Smaller Museums?
Orpington Priory, which may not be a museum for much longer. Photo by Rachel Holdsworth

Despite the historic funding bias supposedly enjoyed by London’s arts scene, its museums aren’t having an easy time of austerity. National Gallery staff, for example, are to step up their strikes this month amid a row over privatisation.

Although the security of major cultural institutions will naturally grab headlines, the Museums Association worries that this overshadows the equally passionate battles being fought over the futures of 25 local authority-funded museums across London.

The Association claims eight such museums have closed in the last decade. “Local museums are treasure troves of culture,” its policy officer Alistair Brown told us. “But drastic funding cuts puts them risk. Many more will close their doors for good if they fail to find new sources of funding.”

Town hall finances took a battering under the Coalition, and as the new Conservative government outlines a pan-departmental spending cut of 40%, many councillors are concerned about their ability to fund statutory services — let alone the ‘luxury’ of arts. It’s feared that the cuts will bite hard in the capital.

Barnet Council says its spending power will have halved by the end of this decade, with a shortfall of £175m. In 2011, it withdrew funding for the Barnet Museum and closed the Church Farmhouse Museum— to save just £100,000 a year. The Tory-led authority claims that Whitehall cuts caused it “unprecedented pressures”.

Barnet Museum is now privately-funded and staffed by volunteers. Curator Carla Hermann claims this was a shot in the arm for the institution, whose visitor numbers have soared, but accuses the council of a “cavalier attitude” to heritage. “Then, and now, there’s no concept of what a local museum actually does,” she says.

Barnet Council says its spending power will have halved by the end of this decade, with a shortfall of £175m.

Is it a crisis yet? The London Museums Group had been of the view that council-funded museums were absorbing cuts stoically, and their outlook was broadly positive — until the new government seemed to commit to a tougher austerity programme.

The Group’s vice-chair Cheryl Smith was in the process of applying for LGBT and dementia funding streams in her role as Islington Museum’s heritage manager when we spoke to her. She explained that museums like hers now require stronger business nous to pick up money wherever it is available.

“Islington Museum’s success is in synergy,” she says. “The council identifies priorities around poverty, isolation, and families. We make our museum service work to those priorities in order to secure funding from different areas. Nowadays, it’s also about using the collections interactively, not just keeping them behind glass.”

Small central museum, like that at Hackney, have to compete with larger free museums. Photo by Andy Wilkes in the Londonist Flickr pool

A charged debate

Some of London’s council officers appear to have stopped at nothing in their efforts to raise cash for their arts services. Croydon Council’s controversial decision in 2013 to sell its Chinese ceramics in order to fund the redevelopment of an arts venue was criticised by the Arts Council — which continues to oppose what it regards as unethical asset stripping of public collections.

Croydon’s press office told us things have “moved on” since the ceramics farrago — but in the neighbouring borough of Bromley, as in Barnet, similar questions have been raised about whether councils can be ‘trusted’ with valuable collections. Following the recent closure of the Priory Museum, the council’s collection may be looked after by librarians and other non-curatorial staff elsewhere in the borough.

Councillors claim to have their hands tied, however. Hackney told us it will keep funding its free museum at the present level, but that it may have to consider introducing entrance fees for special events. Such decisions, when taken elsewhere, have been interpreted as local government creaking under the strain.

Bexley Heritage Trust implemented house entrance fees at its Hall Place site in 2012 after the cash-strapped council shaved off a third of its budget. Heritage director Caroline Worthington explained to us that although the trust’s independence from the council grants it certain freedoms, their fates are still intertwined.

"40% of our money does come from our own fundraising but the rest is from the council," she said. “And Bexley is one of a number of local authorities up and down the country in an extremely difficult position right now.”

Indeed, debate rages in York over whether museum admission charges are the best way to plug the budgetary gap, while at Brighton Museum, a £5 visitor fee came into effect in the spring. Brighton & Hove City Council struggled with bin collections under its previous administration, and there are obvious questions about essential spending priorities in lean times.

In London, the merits of entry fees for council-backed museums vary geographically. Although outer boroughs may get away with nominal museum charges due to little competition locally, the inner-London council museums have to outdo the free ‘national’ institutions such as the V&A or British Museum.

Many argue that free art is not a right like free healthcare. But there are also those who say that smaller museums ought to be able to weather this storm. Although smaller in scale, many of these outlets attain national significance on top of providing a crucial community service.

There is little doubt that adaptation will prove critical to those remaining 25 sites in London. But one council officer told us that in some boroughs, an "old guard" of staff was jeopardising council museums’ survival in a brave new world.

"All museums need to understand who their audience are and where they're going in future. But many in London just don't do that," they said.

Last Updated 07 August 2015