The true impact of the government’s cuts to local authority budgets is now starting to become clear, with average cuts of 25% off museums budgets reported by the Museum Association last year. This is inflicting job losses, shorter opening hours and closures across the country. Outside of the national museums, many of which are concentrated in London, regional museums and heritage centres are really struggling to provide a public service with less staff and money.
Many could face closure entirely, such as Wellingborough Museum in Northamptonshire, where the local council originally wanted to impose a 62% cut in funding. If this had been carried through, then one paid member staff would have lost their job and the 70 volunteers and 30,000 yearly visitors would have lost their access and opportunities for engagement with their local heritage. Fortunately the museum has managed to negotiate just under a 25% cut for the next financial year and will make up any shortfall using other sources of funds.
The news from around the country is similarly grim, with Helston Museum in Cornwallgetting a 50% cut, two museums in
Carmarthenshire, Wales, threatened with closure to save money, South Shields Museum and Art Gallery forced to close over the whole Christmas holiday and a local history society in Leicestershire considering stepping in to manage Harborough Museum to protect it from further cuts. Leicestershire County Council seems to view museums as one of its targets in reducing its budget. The BBC reported in December that the authority had withdrawn their application for a £4m Heritage Lottery Funding bid for the Snibston Discovery Museum. The funding bid had been for a £5m project called Mining Lives, which would have improved the condition of the colliery buildings and increased public access to the site. The County Council was unwilling to agree to the Lottery grant conditions which would have limited the County Council’s ability to cut or close this hugely popular museum.
This all comes at a time when all the evidence shows increasing public participation with heritage sites and museums. A recent survey by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport showed that 72% of UK adults visit a heritage site each year, with 47% of people taking in a visit to a museum or gallery at least once a year. The number of visitors to the English national museums has doubled in a decade to nearly 18 million a year, with even those that have always been free (such as the British Museum) seeing 22% increase over these ten years. Perhaps most importantly there has been a 36% rise in the number of children visiting state museums; 8.3 million of them last year for example. Such is the importance of the sector that VisitBritain has estimated that such national heritage sites alone bring in £4.5bn in tourist money, creating 100,000 jobs spread across the country, all of which suggests museums have real value in both economic and cultural terms. It can only be hoped that is acknowledged by politicians, both local and national, before the current round of harsh and unbalanced cuts destroy a thriving and much loved cultural resource.