As Harold Wilson famously said ‘a week is a long time in politics’.
The media would have us believe that the few weeks following the 2010 General Election have been ground breaking for British politics.
Campaigning for this election arguably began in October 2007 when Gordon Brown decided not to go to the country, so perhaps the electorate can now look forward to a period of political stability as the Liberal-Conservative Coalition finds its feet in government.
We are currently being promised there will not be another General Election until May 2015.
The new Minister for Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport, Jeremy Hunt is one of the few new ministerial appointees to retain his shadow brief, and appears to have a grasp of the issues involved, producing in December 2008 A History of Neglect a damning survey of the Labour Governments curatorship of Heritage (see RN 106).
One of his first acts as Secretary of State, on the 12 May 2010 was to congratulate the winners of this year’s Museums and Heritage Awards for Excellence at a ceremony at London’s Church House where he said ‘I am delighted that my first act as Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport is to congratulate the winners and all those who have been nominated in tonight’s awards. The excellence of our museums, galleries and heritage sector is one of this country’s most important assets.’
John Penrose MP has been appointed as Minister for Tourism and Heritage, while Ed Vaizey MP, who had been the shadow heritage minister, has been given the portfolio for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.
This splits ministerial responsibility for museums from heritage and the built environment and is regrettable as it makes effective communication between groups such as RESCUE and the government difficult.
Reasons to be cheerful
We must wait to see what this will entail, however if plans proposed by candidates from all three political parties during the election campaign are carried out it is possible that museums, whether local, national or in the private sector are likely see changes, as will English Heritage, and its sister bodies in Scotland, and Wales and Northern Ireland. It is possible that all of these bodies will be cut free from direct government funding and may well be expected to be wholly reliant on self funding with some help from the National Lottery. This may be inevitable, and may provide greater stability and new funding opportunities for these bodies over the longer term, but in the short term will require a significant root and branch culture change among them at a time when funding from private individuals and commercial organisations seems unlikely to materialise.
An important area which does not seem to have been affected so far by the recession is the voluntary sector and community archaeology.
There is a rising population of active retired who could choose to spend their time getting more involved in local archaeology, although a recent survey by the CBA shows there is a decline in membership of local societies. In any case there is still a need for public funding and continuing professional involvement in the voluntary sector to ensure that the work is useful and not destructive of important archaeological information.
We may have entered a political and economic watershed where there is no bright new future for archaeology over the horizon.
There are however developments which may be seen as positive and even welcomed.