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Challenging times ahead for the country’s museums following the announcement of further cuts

Museums are very diverse beasts. There are very few dinosaurs left in the museum world (apart from in displays) but that does not mean that there is not an incredible range of business models. Some small independent, volunteer run museums exist with no public funding. Indeed, some large independent museums generate almost all of their operating costs from their own sources.

Large national museums supported by DCMS or devolved administrations are major centres of research and major tourist attractions. They also successfully attract significant philanthropic funding and sponsorship. I am Director of a large, area based local authority archives and museums service in a part of the country with many wards reflecting high indices of multiple deprivation. Local authorities in my area, along with those in a number of other parts of the country, have suffered amongst the highest reductions per head in spending in England. This is not, therefore, about the absolute level of funding that a local authority has (so many factors influence this – one key example being health and employment demographics) but about the year-on-year change. What does a local authority stop doing in order to adjust to significant reductions in funding? For museums, whether managed by local authority or in trust status but relying for a significant proportion of funding on the local authority, there will be significant funding implications over the next 2 to 5 years.

I am convinced that the large and significant services like Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums will still be here in 2018, they will have developed and enhanced their work and will still be offering excellent services. TWAM has demonstrated its value and is fortunate enough to be supported by Major Partner Museum funding and Arts Council Core Funding awarded by DCMS.

Business models will, I think, have to change significantly. The key question will relate to what services can be provided free at point of delivery. More and more the only services that can be provided free at point of delivery may be those which are directly funded by specific grants or initiatives.

For us the Autumn statement has had two effects. The confirmation of local authority funding has, in some cases, resulted in further financial pressure over the next two years on the local authorities who support us. This may lead to further pressure on our funding from these local authorities and/or may mean that they themselves deliver reduced services and there are reduced opportunities for us to work with them in engaging with the public. In addition, the Chancellor announced savings in the DCMS and Arts Council budgets. We await confirmation of these reductions.

Museums are resilient and we have fantastic staff and stakeholders who will help us sustain our activities. I am concerned, however, that we will be unable to continue to provide, at no or low cost, some of the services which have ensured that we are a truly accessible museum and archive service and that, at some of our sites, over 55% of our visitors are from socio-economic groups C2, D and E, and that we can continue to serve and make a difference in the lives of our communities, some of whom are amongst the poorest in the country.

In times like these every interest group will plead that it is a special case, the special case for museums is the sense of wonder that they create with all the transformational power that brings and, of course, our collections and buildings (many of which are of historic and cultural significance in their own right). Without the resources to sustain, develop and interpret these we will be unable to fulfill our key purpose of making a difference in people’s lives.

About 18 months ago we completed the Culture Shock project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Renaissance funding, and delivered in partnership with our Hub partners, but only possible because of our strong core infrastructure At the celebration day at the end of it two people independently came up to me to say ‘this project changed my life.’ Our job over the coming months and years is to ensure that museums can continue to do that.