You are on page 1of 8

Museums in crisis

An outline of the RESCUE position Introduction This document is intended to outline the scope and scale of the current crisis in local and regional museums. It has been drawn up in response to the repeated cuts in funding and staffing levels that accompany the annual decisions taken by local authorities prior to setting levels of council tax. RESCUE acknowledges that local authorities have many competing calls on limited budgets and that social services, education, transport and similar public services must have a high priority when setting levels of spending. Our concern is that both local and national government see museums and related ‘heritage services’ as a luxury which can be eliminated in order to spend money on more electorally advantageous areas, especially when elections are due! We are seeking a dialogue with central government on this issue and concrete proposals which will see the current system of local funding replaced with a system which will allow investment in good quality facilities which will serve the needs of all the many users of museums and ensure that the unique collections which are currently held in local and regional museums will be safeguarded for the future. The purpose of this summary is to outline the position and to present some possible ways forward. It will form the basis of our discussions with officials from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in the future. RESCUE does not have a comprehensive record of all the cuts and closures carried out in the last few years, but the following examples indicate something of the nature of the problem; • • • • Daventry Museum (Northamptonshire): Closed Kettering Museum and Art Gallery: Closed on Mondays to save £5,000 per year The Potteries Museum, Stoke on Trent; Ten curatorial posts reduced to four in 2003 Leicester Museums Service: Under threat – options include: admission charges to be levied at the Guildhall, closure of the Abbey Pumping Station, restricted opening or closure at Jewry wall Museum

RESCUE is gathering information on specific museums, galleries and collections that are under threat from under-funding and closure. We welcome any contributions that members may be able to make to this process, particularly information that can be backed up with reference to published information (Council minutes, newspaper reports etc) as such information can be highly persuasive when presenting a case formally. RESCUE would also welcome examples of the ways in which cuts to local museum services have had an impact on the services available to the public, to local societies and amateur/voluntary groups or individuals and on then possibility of using collections for research purpose. Staff under threat of dismissal are often prevented from campaigning for their jobs and the retention of services, so the intervention of bodies such as RESCUE can be of significance in raising issues with local councillors and MPs, MSPs and Assembly members. We would also be interested in any responses that you may have to the ideas presented in this document. If you can contribute in any way, please e-mail the secretary with details: cgc@ccumberpatch.freeserve.co.uk The problem The care and curation of archaeological and historical artefacts and the written, drawn and photographic material pertaining to archaeological excavations is the responsibility of local, regional and national museums. Local and regional museums are funded by local authorities with the addition of varying amounts of money from grant aid, including money for specific projects from the National Lottery.

To be useful for display, education, tourism etc, museum collections require management and conservation while displays and educational collections require the input of staff with detailed knowledge of the material, its local, regional and national importance and the ways that it can be deployed effectively for the various groups who constitute the public. Archaeological knowledge and the interpretation of the significance and meaning of sites and finds are constantly changing in response to changing approaches to the past and to new discoveries from excavation and survey. If museum displays and outreach programmes are to remain relevant and up to date then museum staff must have sufficient time and resources to stay abreast of these developments. Given that museums are the repositories of large and diverse collections, this means that investment in core activities must be appropriate to the tasks involved. The great national museums, mainly, but not only, based in London, hold large and significant collections, but other collections of national and international importance are held in local and regional museums (e.g. Stoke-on-Trent: 18th to 20th century ceramics; Northampton: shoe collections and the Museum of Leathercraft collection on loan, etc) and these museums are funded by local authorities. Existing collections are constantly being added to through the accumulation of archaeological material from developer funded excavations (through PPG 16) as well as through the collecting activities of museum staff (new collections of material relating to recent social history, the acquisition of individual objects through purchase, the acquisition of collections through legacies etc). This ongoing expansion of the collections is essential if museums are to reflect the increase in knowledge represented by new work and new collections. It does, however, have implications for the infrastructure which is required to enable existing and new collections to be used effectively in education, research, tourism etc. The implications are particularly acute in five areas: Staffing levels The staffing of museums is a critical issue; museums consist of collections of objects and the value of these objects resides at least partly in the levels of expertise and knowledge of the staff who care for them and make them available to the public through exhibitions, through educational initiatives and by providing access to the reserve collections to researchers. Interpretation and preparation for display The objects which constitute the holdings of museums require interpretation if their significance is to be fully explained in the variety of ways needed to make them accessible. The days of ‘cabinets of curiosities’ are long gone and an understanding of the context and inter-relationships between objects and the wider societies which created them (and the ways our society reacts to them) is essential in any modern conception of the museum and its role as an institution engaged (through public outreach, education, exhibitions etc) with the wider society. Conservation requirements Relatively few museums now have on-site conservators or facilities for conservation and the result will be an ongoing decline in standards of care and attention given to collections which will increase over time. Conservators brought in on a contract basis can attend to the needs of particular objects or collections but are not on-hand for the day-to-day attention which many collections require. This includes regular monitoring of the environment (as regards to temperature, relative humidity, light levels, gaseous and particulate pollution and pests) and its control, according to the particular needs of different materials, both on display and in store. As very few archaeological units have anyone qualified in conservation on their staff, the issue the conservation requirements of material arriving at museums as a result of PPG 16 related work is particularly acute. Conservation is generally seen as the responsibility of the museums and contracting units are reluctant to undertake anything but ‘first aid’ style conservation for finds (other than in the case of high profile or exceptional finds where specific funding may be available).

Storage space Storage space is inadequate in many, if not most, museums, to the extent that the possibility of disposing of collections is now being discussed as a serious option. Curators of archaeological collections are under increasing pressure to dispose of all or parts of existing collections as new material accumulates. A policy of archive destruction, whether carried out locally or in accordance with a general policy, will have serious implications for the potential offered by museums for research. This will affect the capacity of museums to present their material in new and innovative ways as it is research which underlies the presentation of material and interpretation at all levels. If material is disposed of on the basis of its bulk, modern political or geographical boundaries or aesthetic non-appeal, the biases in the remaining available material may lead to a distorted interpretation or presentation of the evidence. Recent Lottery funded initiatives have sidestepped the provision of storage by creating buildings which consist almost entirely of gallery space, without the infrastructure, including storage space and conservation facilities, to support these public spaces (e.g. Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery). Funding All of the problems outlined above have cost implications and at present the funding of museums is born mainly by local authorities. In principle archaeological material should be covered by the PPG 16 ‘polluter pays’ system, but the inadequacies of this system means that it is difficult or impossible for museums to benefit from the input of money from developers into the process of excavation. Some museums charge a rate per box for storage, but this is never enough to make a significant contribution to the cost of new storage facilities and nor is it regular or reliable enough to make anything but a minor contribution to the costs of storage, archiving and staffing. Museums are largely funded from Council Tax revenue with additional contributions for specific projects from grant aid through the lottery and the MLA (formerly Resource). As core funding comes from local authorities, museums and galleries are vulnerable at times of financial stringency as they are the first targets of cost-cutting initiatives as such cuts can be easily justified with reference to the greater needs of roads, schools, social services etc. There is no requirement for local authorities to maintain heritage services of any sort and so each year deeper and deeper cuts are being made in the staffing of museums and in the funds available for the routine curation and maintenance of collections. The effect is that individual museums are closed, staff are sacked or encouraged to take early retirement and the ability of individual museums to take and deal with newly discovered material is reduced. This affects all aspects of the services provided by the museums to schools and colleges, to academic researchers, to visitors and tourists from the UK and abroad and to local historical and archaeological societies. It should be noted that local societies, with the assistance of lottery funding, are becoming increasingly active in excavations and fieldwork (a development that RESCUE welcomes) and are generating their own archives which will require long term curation and storage. RESCUE is of the opinion that there is a crisis in the provision of resources for museums and associated heritage services at the local and regional level. This crisis stems from the fact that these services are non-statutory and are managed and largely funded by local authorities. Museum funding represents a ‘soft target’ when the annual budgetary decisions are made and cuts can always be justified with reference to the greater needs of other areas of public service. Museum services are also at the mercy of changing agendas, as set by central Government or determined locally. Services are required to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their rôle in initiatives, such as crime reduction, social inclusion and provision of a cleaner environment. Museums find that they have to mould themselves around the new priorities if they are to survive. With no statutory protection and where their traditional raison d’être is being challenged, Museums become very vulnerable indeed. RESCUE considers the crisis to be one that requires urgent attention from central government as the effects of ongoing cuts are both immediate and long term.

Immediate effects include a reduction in the service to the public through access to collections and to the educational and heritage professions who act to interpret and present the past to the public through the use of museum collections. Long term effects stem from the fact that museum sector is suffering severe cuts and closures which will not easily be reversible in the future. Once assets such as staff expertise, buildings and collections (the latter, by their very nature, unique) are lost, they will not easily be replaced. RESCUE has raised this matter with Ministers on a number of occasions and the issue was also the subject of an Early Day Motion (377) laid down by Robert Maclennan MP in 1999. The response to these expressions of concern has been that the provision of museums and heritage services is the responsibility of local authorities and that central government has no role in dictating how Council Tax and central government grant money should be spent. No practical response addressing the issues that RESCUE considers of greatest significance has yet been offered by ministers. RESCUE finds this to be an inadequate response for the following reasons: Nationally significant collections are held locally Although collections are located locally or regionally, the significance of many, particularly archaeological, collections is national. Numerous examples could be given of such collections, but two are outstanding: • The Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent holds internationally important collections of 18th and 19th century ceramics. The collections are of central importance to the understanding of the history of the 18th and 19th centuries given that pottery formed an important part of the exports of Britain during the Imperial period and are found throughout the world on both colonial sites and non-colonial sites. To assert that this collection is of no more than local or regional importance is to betray a lack of understanding of the nature of British Imperialism and the role played by trade in the empire. In spite of this, the museum and its staff have been treated as being of no more than local importance by a Local Authority which clearly lacks any understanding of the importance of the museum and its collections. Northampton Museum holds the designated national collection of boots and shoes together with associated collections, such as shoe machinery. The Museum of Leathercraft collection, held on a 50-year loan from the Museum of Leathercraft Trust since 1977, has been marginalised and the Trust is seeking an alternative home for this outstanding collection. The leather industry was one which was of enormous importance throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods and into the early modern period. Northampton Museum holds an internationally important collection of material relating to the boot and shoe industry. The Department has lost 1 of 3 members of staff and cuts to the rest of the Museum service have put extra strains and pressures on already overburdened staff.

Collections of local and regional importance Although specific collections may be deemed to be of local or regional importance (although it is not clear how these judgements are made, or on what basis), cumulatively, they represent the heritage of the entire nation, reflecting the regional distinctiveness which is a characteristic of the British Isles. There is a very real sense in which such collections are, in their diversity, vernacular character and local distinctiveness, of greater value that the spoils of the aristocratic ‘grand tour’ of the 18th and 19th centuries which are so often the object of large scale fund-raising initiatives and which benefit from substantial grant aid from the lottery and other sources. The dependence upon local funding does not recognise that, cumulatively, the collections that are currently under threat actually constitute the national heritage and as such are the responsibility of national as well as local, government. RESCUE argues that central government should recognise its responsibility to local communities and regional diversity by seeking a form of funding which recognises the unique nature of museum collections as a whole. It has become common in recent years to speak of farm animals

constituting a ‘national herd’, comprising the sum total of individual herds. Using this as an analogy, we might speak of the ‘national collection’ as comprised of the total holdings of all of our museums and galleries. The essential difference is that where as a national herd can be reconstituted by breeding after an epidemic leading to mass slaughter, once museum collections are broken up and discarded, we can never reconstitute them in anything like their original form. Core funding vs. funding for specific projects Funding for specific projects, particularly educational initiatives, while welcome, does not address the issue of the core funding of posts or the day-to-day maintenance of buildings, curation and conservation of collections or the development of new storage and work space to allow collections to be managed and used effectively. Special purpose funding may be used by local authorities as a way of cutting the core funding while claiming that overall funding levels have not declined. The responsibilities of central government RESCUE believes that central government has an obligation to safeguard museum services and collections and that these obligations should over-ride issues of responsibility for funding, if necessary by making the maintenance of museums to a certain required standard a statutory responsibility on local authorities. This presupposes a considerable input from central Government. Alternatively, regional archaeological archives could be established, with central Government support, with prescribed relationships with local authority museums, universities, etc. RESCUE also believes that these obligations were acknowledged in Power of Place, Force for our Future and represent an obligation under the Valetta Convention. Museums and the Historic Environment RESCUE broadly welcomed the publication of Power of Place (POP) in 2000 and the subsequent Government Statement Force for our Future (FFOF), albeit with reservations in both cases. Both of the publications were concerned with the Historic Environment as a whole but were focussed primarily on buildings and landscapes and made only passing reference to the museum sector, although acknowledging its position in relation to education (e.g. FOFF para. 2.1, the Treasure Act (para. 4.36) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (para. 4.37). This is an unsustainable position in respect of archaeology in that the archaeological record can only be said to exist once sites have been excavated and the results interpreted and published. Such excavation leads directly to the creation of archives which then require curation if they are to yield the outcome which FOFF sees as desirable in respect of community awareness and access, education and sustainability. This process, enshrined as ‘preservation by record’ in both PPG 16 and MAP II, inevitably involves the deposition of archives in museums, currently the only possible repositories for such archives. The commitments to the Historic Environment which are central to FFOF thus entail a commitment to the museum sector which is incompatible with the denials of responsibility made by successive ministers summarised in appendix 1. The phrase ‘sustainability’ is used repeatedly in FOFF. In relation to archaeological archives it means that the archival material must be available for examination and reinterpretation by a wide variety of user groups with the reproduction of original data appropriate to specific user groups, the upgrading of digital information as new computer systems replace older ones and the continual monitoring of the condition of artefacts and other material to ensure their physical stability in the long term. If the assets created by excavation and survey are to be sustainable in the long term, then appropriate funding has to be in place to ensure that the necessary skills are maintained within the local and regional repositories – this is clearly not the case at the present time when storage space is inadequate, museums are being closed and staff with the necessary skills are being sacked. Section 1.3 of FOFF highlights the role of local government in respect of the historic environment, but at present no measures are in place to ensure that this central role is being adequately fulfilled. Indeed, the repeated denial of responsibility by ministers (in the letters replying

to attempts by RESCUE to raise this matter) appears to be indirect contradiction of the relevant section of FOFF. It is clearly not enough for central government to simply ‘urge’ local government to face up to its responsibilities in respect of the historic environment, some more active strategy needs to be adopted as a matter of urgency in order to put pressure on local government to take its responsibilities seriously in this regard. Section 4 of FOFF is concerned with the protection and sustainability of the historic environment but this section fails to deal with the issue of archives and museums other than in respect of the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This is an important and worrying omission and appears to underline the government’s failure to act in respect of archaeological archives, the curation and maintenance of which are essential if the initiatives relating to standing buildings and archaeological sites are to have any meaning whatsoever. The significance of the visible and buried historic environment is closely bound up with the archives which are generated as each and every site, building or landscape is investigated. In the Foreword to FOFF, Tessa Jowell MP noted that ‘This document is far from being the end of the story. On the contrary, it is only the beginning of a major drive to unlock the full potential of our historic assets’. RESCUE welcomes this statement and looks forward to the publication of a document which deals specifically with the crisis in the provision of facilities within local and regional museums which will allow the potential at present locked up in archives to be realised. Some initial steps which RESCUE sees as critical are summarised at the end of this document. The Valetta Convention The Valetta Convention explicitly includes ‘all remains and objects and any other traces of mankind from past epochs’ (Article 1:2) and thus covers the contents of museums and archives resulting from archaeological excavation. The Convention commits signatories to ‘protect the archaeological heritage as a source of the European collective memory and as an instrument for historical and scientific study’ (Article 1:1). Archaeological finds are explicitly mentioned in Article 1 paragraph 3 as constituting part of the archaeological heritage. Article 3 commits each signatory to the preservation of the archaeological heritage and to guaranteeing the scientific significance of archaeological research work by ensuring that
‘The elements of the archaeological heritage are not uncovered or left exposed during or after excavation without provision being made for their proper preservation, conservation and management (Article 3:I d)’

Given that finds have already been acknowledged as forming part of the archaeological heritage (as noted above) and given that other elements will be incomprehensible without the retention and proper curation of records pertaining to excavation, it follows that there is an implicit commitment to the proper funding and resourcing of the repositories where these materials are stored. In Britain this means local and regional museums. Article 4 of the Convention commits signatories to the provision of
‘appropriate storage places for archaeological remains which have been removed from their original location’ (Article 4:iii)

RESCUE considers that this Article covers the provision of adequate storage for the archives generated by excavation and survey and will thus be violated if proposals to dispose of archives are put into operation or if the conditions within individual museums are allowed to decline until they are no longer suitable for the storage of archaeological material. What RESCUE wants from central government RESCUE considers that, while the central government has taken important steps towards recognising the importance of the historic environment generally (through Power of Place and Force for our Future and in specific items of legislation), there has been a general failure to acknowledge the crisis in the provision of storage and curatorial facilities in local and regional museums. This

failure is most clearly demonstrated in the letters replying to RESCUE’s concerns in respect of the ongoing attacks on the museum sector by local government in pursuit of the aim of lower Council Tax rates. RESCUE is seeking the following action from central government: • Acknowledgement that local and regional museums hold collections which are, individually and collectively, part of a national resource which constitutes a central element of the historic environment. Acknowledgement that central government has a responsibility towards those archives and collections already held in museums and by archaeological contractors which entails tasking responsibility for them if local government is incapable or unwilling to act to protect and cutrate them adequately. A commitment to funding the creation and maintenance of appropriate local and regional repositories for archaeological archives in partnership with local and regional museums. A commitment to facilitating access to archives by researchers for the purpose of generating new and innovative interpretations of archaeological data and their presentation to a wide variety of user groups An investigation of funding initiatives (including the work of the Heritage Lottery Fund) which have not included the creation of adequate storage space when redeveloping existing museums as visitor attractions and heritage centres. The development of guidelines for future developments in local and regional museums so that the provision of adequate storage and research facilities are built into all future developments Acknowledgement that research is a central element in the future of the historic environment as a resource and national asset and that research needs to be facilitated through the creation of accessible and usable archives which are housed in facilities which include appropriate and usable working space. Acknowledgement that research undertaken on the collections held by local, regional and national museums is an activity that should be funded as fully and as adequately as is creative activity in the arts field A commitment to the adequate funding of professional conservators and appropriate facilities to ensure the long term survival of fragile and collections

• •

• •

RESCUE will be seeking a meeting with officials from DCMS at the earliest opportunity with a view to discussing these and related issues. Please support us in this task by writing to your MP, MSP or Assembly Member and to your local authority outlining your concern for the fate of the collections held in your local museum. Such expressions of concern will be of material significance in making his issue one which elected representatives have to take seriously.
RESCUE June 2004 Additional threats (25th January 2005): Cambridgeshire Heritage services (including Museums) Newark Museums

See also RESCUE News no. 99 Summer 2006