Post-election Museum Manifesto: How can museums fight to survive in the next 5 years of Tory government?

I wrote this on Friday, when I, along with everyone on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, was feeling pretty sore about the Conservative election win. In some ways it feels frivolous to be focusing my thoughts and energy on how this election will affect museums, rather than wider issues in society, but museums are what I know about, and the area where I feel I have more scope to have a positive impact. Focusing on one area where I might make a different is more productive than looking at the bigger picture and simply despairing.  That said, I believe museums are a privilege. They are not the NHS, or the welfare state, which people depend on as a safety net in times of need, and which are now at risk. I am not going to argue that museums are an essential in our society, but they are a wonderful thing for society to have. While I hope there will be a fight for the protection of true essentials like healthcare, social care, and education, we need to put up a fight for our privileges too, because a society where we only have essential services and are grateful for them is too little to ask for in Britain in the 21st century.

In the bubble of the museum sector, people believe that museums change lives. They are seen as vital to the well-being and cultural life of the country. In the eyes of politicians, they are barely even a consideration; keeping them open and accessible is somebody else’s problem, as the MA and NMDC’s recent museum hustings event showed. For the general public they are somewhere in between. Not life-changing perhaps, but a fun, thought provoking way to spend the day now and then, somewhere to take the kids, something free to do when you are broke and bored, a place to kill time, find inspiration or recharge your batteries, a pleasant venue for a cup of coffee in the cafe, a learning resource for a school, uni or personal project. These are all good things. We would miss them if they were gone, or if we had to pay prohibitive entrance fees to access them. But if we want to safeguard our museums we have to fight for them now. And not in a wishy washy, box-ticking to look good for the annual report way; shit just got real. Of course I don’t have all the answers, or any real power to implement them if I did, but in recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what museums and people who care about museums can do to ease the blows which are coming.

  • Museums need public support. It is therefore more important than ever to make sure we understand what the public really want from their local museum and that we are giving it to them to the best our ability. Yes this research is costly, but public support is priceless.
  • Museums need to engage and advocate with visitors and non-visitors, to ensure the full value of work they are doing is appreciated. This can be done through publicising good work, sharing reports and statistics about the positive impacts museums can have for education, tourism, well-being. It can also be done by creating exhibitions and displays which engage visitors with ideas about what the museum is for and why it’s important – explain and justify our work to the public. The best thing about these displays is the chance to utilise and showcase the museums’ core collections. A great example of this is Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s Curiosity space, which I wrote about here.
  • Museums need to rally support from museum lovers to advocate on their behalf, and lobby local authorities and central government to make funding for local culture and heritage a priority. Museums have made a great effort in the recent past trying to engage and encourage new audiences to come to museums, and they are right to do so. But there are people who already visit and are passionate about museums, and we need to engage these people even further to help fight for the future of the sector. We spend a lot of time courting these passionate people for their financial support through membership schemes, but we need their voices as much as their money.
  • Museums need to prioritise. We cannot have everything, and we cannot do everything we would want to do in less austere times. Museums need to work to make sure they are providing the core services that people want and expect from their museum. Pet projects of curators should not be given the go ahead while less glamorous collections care work is neglected for example.
  • Museums shouldn’t let people forget their USP. In 2012 the Arts Council England took over from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as the public body responsible for museums. But museums (to say nothing of libraries and archives) are not just about the arts. They are about history, heritage, scientific discovery and research, cultural understanding. They can help support the STEM agenda by inspiring young people’s interest in these subjects. Lumping these services together under the arts banner shows that the Coalition had little time for museums as a distinct, valuable asset in society. Museums need to focus on their distinct identity in order to advocate for their place in society.
  • Museums need to find new sources of funding…and remain free at the point of access so that everyone has the opportunity to visit, learn from and enjoy them. This is the toughest challenge but it has to be done for museums to maintain the great work they have been doing in the last couple of decades. While I have written in earlier points about capitalising on the passion of existing museum audiences, that does not mean I think museums should abandon work to engage new visitors, far from it. But the reality is that time and money is needed to do this work, and we need to find new, sustainable ways of generating income.
  • Museums need to maximise the effectiveness of the funding they do have, by working together and sharing resources. The most inspiring talks I saw at the recent Museums and Heritage Show were about museums pooling expertise and resources, sharing skills and being open with their methodologies and outcomes so that other museums could use and learn from them. A national strategy is needed to do this, but Ed Vaizey doesn’t think this is necessary. At regional level museum development programmes could help to coordinate this work, but they will be ever more stretched and under-funded.
  • Museums need to look outside of the sector for help. Universities, charities, community groups, all kinds of non-profit organisations will need to work together and apply the kind of partnership approach, skill sharing and openness described above to achieve their aims in the current climate.
  • Museums need to safeguard collections. We need to ensure that cash-strapped local authorities do not resort to the unethical sale of museum assets to raise funds as happened in Northampton and Croydon. When sell-offs and closures happen, we are losing valuable artefacts and cultural resources that we can not simply get back when the economic climate picks up again.
  • Museums need to find new models for working with volunteers which are not exploitative. Where paid staff are cut volunteers should not be expected to pick up the slack, but as a last resort museums need to capitalise on goodwill of passionate people who don’t want to see the sector decimated by cuts.
    In the early days of museums they were an embodiment of the collecting hobbies of a privileged few. Now museum jobs are underpaid and oversubscribed, and people are expected to work for free for months or years to be in with a chance to gain access to one. Maybe we need to change the way we think about this. Everyone who wants to work in museums finding a full time, living wage job in the field is unrealistic in this climate. We should accept this and reimagine volunteering your time to help your local museum as a rewarding hobby as opposed to a gateway to a career, or a substitute for paid work. To do this we need to make volunteering opportunities flexible and fun and accessible enough to be something people want to do in their spare time. The time people actually have spare, in evenings and at weekends, or online whenever they fancy it, via projects like transcribing digitised records. This might mean that paid museum staff have to change the way they work in order to be able to support more flexible volunteering, and even volunteer extra hours themselves. If museum professionals expect the public to get behind museums and give their time to keep them afloat, they have to be prepared to do the same.