Don’t believe the hype: more adults and children are visiting Britain’s museums
But it’s hard to predict how budget cuts will impact on attendance, especially in regional centres
By Maurice Davies. Web only
Published online: 22 February 2012
Recently published research found that 40% of British children aged five to 12 have never visited an art gallery. Claiming to have identified a “culture starved’ generation, the study also found, somewhat less dramatically, that 17% of children have never visited a museum with their parents.
On closer reading, the research seems to be part of a public relations ploy to get parents to take their children to cultural venues in Britain’s second largest city. Commissioned by the tourism body Visit Birmingham and published in February, the research concludes rather clumsily: “Many attractions in Birmingham and the wider region have free entry, particularly for children, and you can learn much from visiting landmarks and exploring the history about them. Modern children would really benefit from including more cultural activity in their lives, which is invaluable to their learning.”
It’s a worthwhile sentiment and surely a good thing to market the city’s cultural attractions; certainly a better way to spend a day than slogging round the Bull Ring shopping centre, even with its Future Systems-designed branch of Selfridges.
But are “modern children” really so loath to visit museums and galleries? The Department for Culture, Media and Sport regularly runs a large survey of participation in culture, called Taking Part. It shows that around two thirds of children living in England visited a museum or gallery in the past year. I think that’s quite impressive, but those promoting Birmingham might choose to say instead that a third didn’t visit.
The most noticeable thing the Taking Part survey has found is that the proportion of adults going to museums and galleries has “significantly increased”, with 46% visiting in 2010-11, compared with 42% in 2005-06. (In the same period participation in arts and heritage stayed the same and use of libraries fell significantly.)
So, museums have been on the up thanks, at least in part, to increased investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from Renaissance in the Regions funding for local museums. Now, financial times are getting harder, so what lies ahead?
National museums’ funding from government is being cut by around 15%. They all appear to have agreed to retain free admission (The Art Newspaper, February 2012, p13), but there will be fewer exhibitions, fewer curators, fewer learning staff and less marketing and outreach. There’s still a lot of money available from the Heritage Lottery Fund (in fact this has increased), but the days of eye-catching new buildings and epic museum makeovers are largely gone.
It’s hard to predict how this will impact on attendance. In normal times, reduced investment in the museum “product” would be expected to make museums less appealing. On the other hand, in difficult times people seek out culture. That might explain the popularity of recent exhibitions such as Leonardo at the National Gallery and Hockney at the Royal Academy, in spite of the staggeringly high admission charges. (The adult ticket price for Hockney is £15.50 without booking fees—a lot, but still far cheaper than spending a few hours buying shoes.)
Regional museums in England face the most dramatic changes in funding. Many face cuts in their local government grants. On top of that, Arts Council England has changed the allocation of Renaissance funding, which for almost a decade gave additional grants to 45 major regional museum services. In January, ACE made it clear that over half of them will lose their regular Renaissance funding from April 2012.
The arts council will treat just 16 museum services as its “major partner museums”. These include most of England’s well-known major regional museums, such as the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton and Leeds and a couple of unexpected new entrants, namely the Wordsworth Trust and the Lakeland Arts Trust, which runs Abbot Hall and Blackwell.
However, there are striking omissions. There are no museums funded in the East Midlands, a region including Leicester, Nottingham, Lincoln and Derby. Most shocking was the art council's withdrawal of major funding from nearby Sheffield, apparently because of strong competition from the rest of Yorkshire and because of Museums Sheffield's long-standing financial difficulties (now ironically made far worse). Nick Dodd, the chief executive of Museums Sheffield furiously protested: “This is bitterly disappointing news. Funding from the outgoing Renaissance in the Regions scheme has transformed the quality of museum and gallery provision in Sheffield over the past eight years. This decision will have a devastating impact and leaves Sheffield, South Yorkshire and the East Midlands grossly under-funded. We fully intend to appeal.”
It’s not clear whether the arts council entertains appeals, but Dodd continued to fight and took local MP and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to complain to the arts council. True to form, Clegg appears to have had little impact, but he was able to say: “local Liberal Democrats moved quickly to ensure the money Museums Sheffield receives from Sheffield City Council is protected”, which is some consolation. There has also been a groundswell of support for Museums Sheffield, with hundreds of positive comments on their website and elsewhere.
In an announcement made on Valentine’s Day, Dodd’s stance changed. He is now focusing on getting as much as he can from other arts council funds, such as short-term transition money, set aside to ease the shrinkage of museums that will no longer get Renaissance money—but he still warns of as many as 45 staff redundancies.
To return to children and museums. As part of their campaign, Museums Sheffield published the arts council’s assessment of their rejected funding bid. This rated their work with children and young people as: “Outstanding. Long track record of high quality provision”. One of the arts council’s five goals for museums is “every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of museums”. However, the arts council seems unable to fund adequately even “outstanding” museums like Sheffield. And, even when funding was better, a third (or more) of children weren’t visiting museums and galleries. Sadly, the arts council's goal might turn out to be a rather over-ambitious aspiration.
The writer is head of policy and communication, the UK-based Museums Association, and a museum consultant
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