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Regional Museums (England)

Volume 457: debated on Monday 5 March 2007

3. What assessment the Secretary of State has made of the effect of the renaissance in the regions programme on regional museums in England. (124563)

The renaissance in the regions programme has revitalised museums across England, enhancing their role in education, access and social inclusion. Last year, 1.2 million school children participated in activities supported by renaissance hub museums.

Is the Minister aware that under the renaissance programme, outreach activity has increased by more than 7,000 per cent. in the north-east alone? Will he assure me that the programme will continue to receive full funding, so that the fantastic educational resources provided by our museums will not be put in jeopardy?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for championing the renaissance programme. She will know that we had a very good event in the House last week, in which we celebrated the contribution that museums in the north of England, in particular, are making. I know, because I was up there a few months ago, that the Tyne and Wear museums are making a fantastic contribution, particularly because they use members of the community to provide oral history, as well as having items on display. That has led to an increase in participation, especially among young people, more of whom are attending museums across the north-east. As the spending review is ongoing, it is too early to give an assessment on that, but renaissance in our museums is a key part of what the Department has been doing in the past few years.

All that is very fine, but will the Minister acknowledge that the really important point that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) made was about funding? Will he also acknowledge that we cannot have flourishing provincial and regional museums unless the great national museums are also flourishing, but they are seriously underfunded at present?

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed these matters in great detail in the past few months. I refer him to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council report, which does not say that our national museums are underfunded—on the contrary. I know that he is concerned about acquisitions, but, partly because of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, they hold up incredibly well in comparison with many of our European partners with their museums. It is right to say that free museum entry has brought an increase in the popularity of our national museums, and because of the investment in our regional museums we have seen an increase in access and participation there as well.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate the north-east museums service not only on raising the profile of museums in the area, but on raising to record levels the number of school visits to north-eastern museums, especially to Beamish museum in my constituency?

Absolutely. Some 115,000 school children have visited museums in the north-east hub over the last period. When I spoke to the museums service, I was told that previously, due to underinvestment, it was unable to reach schools in the area, so the number of visits was less than half what it is now. There has been a huge explosion in the number of young people involved in our museums, which does not mean merely that they visit for a day, but that they are actually involved in understanding who they are and where they are from in their community, thereby tackling the problems of social cohesion and antisocial behaviour that preoccupy us all on both sides of the House. Our museums play a key role.

The renaissance programme is welcome, but of course the more people who go to our museums and the more television programmes that are made, the greater the profile of archaeology and the bigger the problem of storage, especially of archaeological finds. I would be grateful if the Minister assessed that problem in the coming months, as many museums and county archaeology services are completely at their wits’ end about what to do with all the finds that have to be dug up because of planning permissions and so on. It is becoming a serious financial burden on local authorities and independent regional museums.

It is right that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the huge success of the portable antiquities scheme, which has meant that many local finds go to our local museums, but it is probably also right to say that for most museums only between 10 and 20 per cent. of their collections are exhibited. A lot can never be exhibited because our museums play a key role in the academic study of artefacts and contribute to our knowledge base for those artefacts and their history. We are exploring with the MLA how we can increase touring, especially, in dialogue with our colleagues in Europe, to eastern Europe. I hope that that, in particular, will increase people’s access to all that wonderful treasure.