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Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 12 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the possible closure of Science Museum Group museums in the north of England, what assessment they have made of the economic, educational and cultural benefits of regional museums.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so declare interests as the chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, of which the Science Museum Group is a member, and as a former chairman of MOSI, the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.

My Lords, our country has a diverse network of high-quality museums and galleries, both national and regional, which educate and delight local people and tourists alike. DCMS has overall responsibility for those in England. These museums have a strong identity within their local communities. They are often at the heart of their regions’ creative industries, provide an educational resource and contribute to their regions’ international reputation and economy.

My Lords, given that the Government are committed to promoting tourism in the regions, but also to encouraging youngsters to follow careers in science and engineering, is it not incomprehensible that the Science Museum Group is faced with a possible further 10% funding cut, on top of the 25% cut, thus publicly having to state that it might have to close one of its three regional museums? The Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, or MOSI, attracts 700,000 visitors a year of all ages. They come to see the museum of the first industrial city, the first baby computer and the first passenger railway station in Manchester. Would it not be bordering on the criminal if there was any question of contraction or closure?

My Lords, I must first acknowledge my noble friend’s long-term commitment to the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester and as a distinguished former chairman of it. Visits to the museum have continued to increase and have increased by 31% since its merger with the Science Museum Group in January last year. I have of course read the reports in the press speculating on the future of regional branches of the Science Museum Group. The spending review process for 2015-16 has not reached its completion. It would therefore be premature, indeed impossible, for a considered decision by the Science Museum Group to be made until after that process is complete.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Science Museum Group and as a former chairman, like the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, of the advisory board of MOSI in Manchester. The Minister is right to draw attention to the huge popularity of MOSI. It is a similar story at the other museums in the Science Museum Group. The total number of visitors now exceeds 5 million a year. However, is he aware—and I hope that he listens very carefully to the points made by his noble friend—that the group has had to accept funding cuts of 25%, as the noble Lord says, over the past four years? A further 10%, if that is contained in the spending review, may make it inevitable, although very undesirable, that one of the museums in the group may have to close. Can he use all his influence to make sure that that spending review does not contain a cut on that scale?

My Lords, I well understand the concern that has been expressed in the north, in particular in Yorkshire and in Manchester. Clearly, as I said, the spending review process has not been completed. I am absolutely sure that ministerial colleagues to whom I have spoken in the department are absolutely clear about the contribution that museums make to the tourism market. The DCMS museums are the first six of all visitor attractions in the country. There is a full understanding of the beneficial impact that museums make on our national life.

My Lords, would it not be a good idea if the Minister were to add to the number of visitors to some of the northern museums so that he could see for himself the quality of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the Museum of Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, the Imperial War Museum North and the Museum of Science & Industry—to which the noble Lord, Lord Lee, has quite rightly drawn our attention today—and recognise that they make a major contribution to the cultural and educational life of the north of England? They are an indispensable asset for children in our schools. If they were to be removed at a time when we are trying to promote science, it would be an incredibly retrograde and backward step. It would also further entrench the impression of the north-south divide.

We do not wish for one moment for there to be any sense of divide. As the noble Lord has quite rightly said, this Government and the previous Government have invested a considerable sum of money through the Renaissance programme in regional museums. Since 2011-12, £180 million has been invested by DCMS in the regional museums. As he rightly alluded to, this programme has driven up visitor numbers in regional museums so that last year there were 19.1 million visitors to regional museums. I am very much aware of the—I think that there are seven—Liverpool museums. I have visited some and it would be lovely in the summer if I could visit many more.

My Lords, in view of the contribution of the National Media Museum in Bradford to West Yorkshire culture, can the Minister tell us how he and colleagues will take local views into account in making decisions? In particular, what can he do to avoid competition between the three museums allegedly under threat at the moment?

As I say, there is this speculation. The three museums—the National Railway Museum in York, the National Media Museum in Bradford and MOSI in Manchester—all have a distinct character and history. I will be taking back to colleagues the strong opinions of the right reverend Prelate and others about the importance of the museums in their localities.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum. Does the Minister agree that the draconian cuts that are being imposed have put a huge problem in the face of all the museums? Given the Imperial War Museum’s scope of museums, there is no doubt that one has to look at what draws the most visitors. There is no doubt that a museum such as the Imperial War Museum North—which is an amazing facility opposite the BBC in Salford, and is a fantastic focus—has to be at threat. I would ask whether we are looking at the dreadful business of possibly charging people, because I cannot see how museums can go forward with cuts of this scale.

My Lords, the Government are absolutely clear in the grant-in-aid arrangements that the policy of free admission should continue. Having looked at the increase in visitor numbers, and at the number of children who are visiting museums, I think that free admission is an important feature of our national and regional museum life. I am very conscious of what the noble Lord said about the Imperial War Museum. With the commemoration of the First World War and the investment that is going into the Imperial War Museum, and certainly from the meetings that I have had with officials there, I know that a lot of very exciting work is going to unfold at the Imperial War Museum as well as at Duxford. There is important work for the Imperial War Museum to show.

My Lords, the clue is in the titles—the National Media Museum, the National Railway Museum, the National Coal Mining Museum for England. I have had a look at the names of two dozen people who are trustees of the Science Museum Group or members of the Science Museum advisory board and—would you believe it?—22 of those 24 people are based either in London or in Cambridge.

Does the Minister have any faith that this group of people will have balance when it comes to looking at those national museums that are based in the regions?

I think that I might have an uphill task persuading your Lordships. It is important to say that under the National Heritage Act 1983 the appointment of trustees must have regard to their experience of the development of science and technology, in the case of MOSI, and to their knowledge of management, industrial relations and administration. Interestingly, the chairman of the Science Museum lives in West Yorkshire, and I am led to believe that half the representatives of the board of trustees live outside London. If they are all also living in Cambridge, I will have to look at that.