The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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The Cultural Myriad: A vision for Britain’s museums and galleries

19th March 2013

Put museums at the centre of our ambitions for Britain, argues ResPublica's Stephen Lock

Britain’s national museums and galleries have so far been a major success story of the 21st century. A decade of government commitment to the sector massively expanded its horizons, and the public has fully embraced and enjoyed these accomplishments. Today’s government should capitalise on this success by appreciating the support that they require in stringent economic times, but most of all by broadening its ambitions for these institutions as key players in education, inspiration and social regeneration post-financial crisis.

The boost that was kick-started in 2001 by free entry has now taken root, and these great public fora have truly blossomed and enhanced the cities in which they are located. Their development also appears to have gained substantial traction: even during a recession there are more and more visitors, free entry is considered the political orthodoxy, and importantly almost all of today’s school and university students (who will shape the country’s cultural future) have known no other system.

Much note has already been made of the damage that diminished funds will do to these considerable achievements, but I believe that our main concern should be the lack of political vision for realising the even greater potential which these institutions hold in store for our society’s future.

A truly bold vision would put museums and galleries at the centre of regeneration, growth and society, growing alongside a more balanced and responsible economy. In many ways they are paragons of strong, modern and outreaching communities, imbued with social investment, public engagement and other ‘Big Society’ values, and furthermore they are crowned by internationally celebrated reputations. Therefore besides the short-term financial discussions we should be discussing our bold intentions for unleashing their constructive influence.

This potential is increasingly self-evident. An overwhelming amount of evidence has come to light in recent years revealing the extraordinary public interest in our national museums and galleries and their work. The statistics in publications like Museums Deliver make for startling reading, drawing attention to the veritable explosion of attendance rates across every part of the country (in particular amongst young people and ethnic minorities) even at museums which never charged entry; numbers of volunteers and memberships are rising into the tens of thousands. The figures speak for themselves.

It is also informative to look further afield – the cultural sector as a whole has experienced a real transformation due to the unlocking of popular participation (whether through blogs, podcasts, apps or the crowd-drawing ‘Cultural Olympiad’); the provision of educational services and outreach programmes has proliferated, helping to enhance communities. Hard numbers also bear this out: Heritage Counts has said that the period of 2001-2009 saw memberships grow by 27% for the National Trust, and a staggering 54% for English Heritage. Our national museums are and should continue to be the buzzing centrepieces of this extraordinary national orientation towards culture – the ever-evolving powerhouses of a country which thrives on creativity, inspiration and social interaction.

So, how does this national vision translate into tangible policy? The government has made some sensible principles clear already – ‘access for all’ is an obvious and admirable example; the creation of a network of expertise between cities and collections is similarly commendable, as is the linking of museums with creative industries. Ultimately, though, we should take confidence from the evidence of success and expand the scope.

Right now we should not only be encouraging ambitious projects that we will be ready to invest in when the economy picks up, but also supporting and nurturing the skills and expertise which will be required to make those ambitions successful. And yet staff numbers across the country are being cut back more drastically and with less time for scrutiny than what so-called ‘efficiency savings’ could possibly warrant. There are many bases to be covered beyond the obvious curatorial roles – events and outreach projects require investment in social media, administrative and technological skills.

My message is simple: promote diversity in expertise and skills to complement the diversity of the collections and their intended audience. If we are going to put museums at the centre of our ambitions for Britain, to inspire even greater audiences, to build more world-beating collections and to provide stimulating environments then we have to look after the talent that can make this possible.

The extraordinary opportunity for long-term progress is undoubtedly being subverted by the extreme scale and the speed of present funding cuts. Moreover, though, the government’s approach (which is based mainly on recommendations about attracting increased philanthropic donations) is also excessively simplistic. It could do much more for example to investigate, encourage and enable alternative and more sustainable models of support based around community involvement, which would promote genuine and creative mutual partnerships between museums and galleries and student organisations, local businesses and specific interest groups; this would in turn help to unlock new skills in return for valuable insights and experience, recognition and opportunities to share ideas.

Whatever it decides, the government must face up to the true societal cost of failing to support these institutions sufficiently – namely to plunge their success into jeopardy just at the time when their past achievements and their enormous future potential are tantalisingly apparent.

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