Go back to article: Contexts for photography collections at the National Media Museum

The effects of austerity on museums

Merriman was writing before the change of UK government in 2010 that heralded significant reductions in public funding for museums which have made the issue of the financial sustainability of collecting institutions even more pressing. The Science Museum Group has estimated the cumulative impact of successive statements by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne between 2010 and 2015 equated to a third of the museums’ revenue budget. While those other museums funded directly by national government though the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) were equally affected, even more severe cuts have affected local authority-funded museums. And while in the 2015 Autumn Statement Osborne indicated a change of tack by recognising the value of investing in the broader cultural sector[29], the situation for these local authority museums remains desperate. In many cases, local authorities have closed or mothballed museums pending potential re-opening by groups of volunteers. In Lancashire, the County Council closed all of its five museums as it attempted to save £262m over five years from 2016.[30] In Ilkley, the Manor House Museum, run by Bradford Council, has been closed while agreement is reached with a friends group to operate the house.[31] Other museums have been responded by cutting opening hours[32], while some have introduced admission charges.[33]

Significant reductions in funding have the effect of forcing governing bodies to prioritise activities that are central to their purpose. As Paul Womble puts it in the British Journal of Photography, ‘cuts make you focus on your perceived core values and aims’.[34] For the National Media Museum the strategy has been to redefine the core purpose of the Museum as being more closely aligned with the other museums in the Science Museum Group, of which it is a part. While it could be argued that this change in strategic direction was necessary for a museum that was widely seen to have lost its focus, it would be hard to see the subsequent events happening in the same way without the financial driver of making savings. Rather than go down the route of retrenchment, closure and reductions, the National Media Museum shifted its core values and aims to a position from which it was better placed to not only withstand short-term financial challenges, but also build on its strengths and make a real contribution to its communities. One of the implications of this strategic shift, however, was that the maintenance of some assets and some activities, and the allocation of scarce financial resources to do so, was no longer defensible.

To return to the public debate in 2016, the funding context is certainly present in the public discussion in March and April 2016, although it is notably not central to the debate. The Observer letter on 6 March makes no mention of the funding situation at all, but refers obliquely to curatorial redundancies.[35] In a discussion on Radio 4’s Front Row on 30 March the issue was glossed over by Colin Ford as a segue into a different argument about the decline in visitor numbers.[36] Even campaigns by local Labour MPs did not address funding in relation to the transfer[37] – surprisingly, given the wider political context of a Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition government’s funding decisions. It was left to the Museum itself to make the direct connection in a blog post written by Director Jo Quinton-Tulloch on 6 February.[38]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170710/003