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Museums and art galleries: a way forward

Museum Birmingham11816812 s 146x219Simon Randall and Joanne Bussell put forward some suggested solutions to the challenges facing local authority museums and art galleries.

There are a substantial number of local authority museums and art galleries which house collections reflecting local history and/or heritage, including industrial and social heritage. Some may also have items of national and international importance. Many local authority museums have a long history, often deriving from collections given to local communities by societies or individuals as far back as the 1800s for the benefit of the public, and which were housed in municipal museums or buildings.

These museums are generally owned and/or managed by a range of local authorities and are largely funded by state subsidy. However, increasing numbers of museums are now being managed by other organisations, such as museum trusts and community groups, on behalf of local authorities.

It is also clear that local authority museums are facing a number of significant challenges.

Reductions in taxpayer funding and lack of a statutory basis

Local authority museums have faced significant reductions in subsidies in recent years due to the climate of ‘austerity’ and ensuring the cuts in local authority funding. Local authority museums have been particularly affected as they are not and never have been a statutory service which local authorities must provide – they are an optional, discretionary service only.

Although the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service, no such duty is provided for museums. The lack of a statutory basis for local authority museums means that provision for such facilities is not currently reflected in the formula that determines the level of revenue support for local authorities from central government and inevitably leaves them in a precarious position when compared to statutory services.

As a result, significant numbers of museums in recent years have had to reduce services and access to sites by closing whole or parts of sites in response to the reductions in funding, or even close entirely.

In addition, the Arts Council England’s Accreditation Scheme places significant restrictions on local authority decision making. For example, it places restrictions on any attempts by museums to sell items from their collections, even where the proceeds of such sales would be used to improve facilities or collections and/or to acquire new items.

Displaying collections

Of course, it is the items stored and displayed by a museum that make a museum what it is, and their collections are held in trust for society and should be accessible for inspiration, learning and enjoyment.

These collections can vary significantly in size or nature depending on the museum. According to the Museums Association, out of the 2,500 UK museums (of all types), 25% of these museums have 1,001-5,000 objects in their collection; 15% hold 5,001-10,000; 25% hold 10,001-50,000; 15% hold 50,001-500,000 and a few hold significantly more.

However, there are huge amounts of collections in storage and often for a very long time. A major report by the Taxpayer’s Alliance recently found that local authorities across the UK own a combined art collection which is estimated to be worth at least £2.3 billion and which comprises about 5.5 million works of art, but that less than 1.5% of this art is on display.

More should be done to manage collections better and to ensure that more items are on display, and/or are accessible to the public through other means such as loans or sharing arrangements or by leasing them to other museums or other appropriate institutions.

In 2011 Sir Simon Jenkins, then Chairman of the National Trust, controversially said:

“The hoarding instinct is, I have to say, close to being immoral. I just cannot take vast amounts of fine art sitting in basements in London any more than I can take them sitting in attics all over the country. People painted pictures for other people to look at them. If we cannot show them the pictures, we should give them to someone else who can. The idea that there is something ideologically grand about constantly acquiring works of art so scholars can see them is the ultimate form of elitism.”

Disposal of items from collections

One of the most controversial and difficult issues for museums is whether or not items from collections should be sold, otherwise known as ‘disposal’ or ‘deaccessioning’. The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics, the museum sector’s written principles for best practice, formerly had a strong presumption against disposal. This was relaxed slightly in 2007 to allow for financially motivated disposal, but only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ which are set out in detail in the Code.

Although the Code is technically non-binding, breaches would result in withdrawal of accreditation. This significantly restricts local authority decision-making, particularly for local authorities which have accredited museums or wish to have their museums accredited.

This matter raises some very serious questions for the museums sector. It is unfair and unrealistic to place such cumbersome restrictions on the ability of local authority museums to arrange their own collections in the way they see fit, to invest in other artefacts, and to dispose of items which are not core to their collection and which could bring considerable benefits to the museum and to the collection if sold. Further, these restrictions compare poorly to restrictions on private collectors who are free to dispose of items in their collections as they see fit.

Local authorities should be able to sell an unused, unneeded or duplicate item from one of their museums in order, for example, to prevent a damaging reduction in social care services, or to keep a community centre open, or to deal with unexpected costs arising from population changes and immigration.

There are a number of specific areas meriting further consideration.

Introducing a new approach to reviewing, displaying and sharing of collections

The Government, museum sector bodies and local authorities should ensure that a significantly higher proportion of local authority museum collections are on public display or otherwise accessible to the public, whether within the museum itself or shared with other facilities in the local area or across the country, including other museums as well as schools, libraries, community centres and council-owned buildings or even time sharing or loans in exchange for cash.

As sharing and loaning of collections can both be time-consuming and costly, requiring specialist expertise, we suggest that DCMS, together with the museum and heritage sector, creates a new charitable entity specifically to promote the touring of collections, building upon the work being undertaken by the Touring Exhibition Group. The role of this new entity would be to harness expertise in the promotion, marketing, curating, care of important travelling exhibitions and their display around the UK.

Simplifying and loosening the restrictions on decision-making by local authority museums

The Government should intervene to significantly ease and simplify the restrictions and red tape on local authority museums into a more “light-touch” system of regulation. This simplification will need to take into account the provenance of collections so that local authorities will need to check both ownership and the wishes of the original donors, including their own collection acquisition and disposal policy.

Sales could free up much-needed space and the proceeds could be used to plug a gap in the local authority’s budget in limited circumstances, or to provide additional/better buildings or to acquire more/better objects which will end up being put on display to the public, whether in the museum or elsewhere.

When local authorities are hoarding a veritable treasure trove of culturally and financially viable items, the vast majority of which are not on display, they should be able to sell them, and for the Government and museum sector bodies to make it easier for those local authorities to do so if they choose, provided they act reasonably.

Creating more opportunities for local authority museums to save money, to generate or acquire additional income and to acquire additional items/collections

The Government should work with the museum sector and local authorities to improve opportunities for fundraising, income generation and acquisition of new items/collections for local authority museums, particularly through setting up museum trusts, making better use of philanthropy and private investment and considering incentives such as expanding the scope of existing tax reliefs on donated items and collections.

Many local authorities have already taken such steps through merging museum services and/or transferring museum services from local authorities to newly established museum trusts. There are many examples in Derby, York, Wakefield and Coventry.

Charitable trusts have access to sources of funding which councils cannot access or are less able to access (a philanthropist, for example, is more likely to donate to a charity than to a local authority), as well as being able to benefit from various exemptions and reliefs from taxes and business rates.

Museums and art galleries have a huge role in the lives of people, communities and places, and have often proved to be a catalyst for regeneration, as has occurred in Wakefield with the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery, and in Margate with the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery.

Simon Randall is a consultant and Joanna Bussell is a partner in the Local Authority and Charities team at law firm Winckworth Sherwood. They can be reached via the firm’s website


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