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Regional Museums

Volume 771: debated on Monday 25 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the closures of regional museums, particularly in the North of England, and the impact of those closures on the United Kingdom’s creative industry and on the educational services provided to local schools and colleges.

My Lords, decisions on changes to regional museum service provision are for those who run them, including local authorities. However, we fully appreciate that regional museums are important for both local communities and local economies. This information is not collated centrally, but we have asked the Arts Council to provide what information it currently has available on museum closures and will consider the challenges facing regional and local museums more fully in the museums review announced in The Culture White Paper.

My Lords, in this 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare, it is surely fitting that DCMS graced the recent White Paper, to which the noble Lord referred, with a quotation from “Love’s Labour’s Lost”—an obscure one, but it is there. It raised two questions in my mind. Which Shakespearean character does the Minister most remind you of? Was it when he was a bit younger shaking his mane of golden locks around as the Fair Youth of the early sonnets, or is it today’s more busy activity as Ariel or Puck to successive Ministers? Why do the Government in the White Paper persist in praising local museums and galleries for the contribution they can make to economic growth, education and well-being, as Mr Greg Clark MP says in the paper, when the reality is £1 billion-worth of cuts and regional museum closures—up to 45 so far?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, knows his Shakespeare perhaps a little better than I do, and I would not like to put myself forward as any of the characters he mentioned. He has drawn attention to The Culture White Paper, which is of course very important. It sets out our intention to increase participation in culture, particularly by children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As far as regional museums are concerned, we will be looking at the review of the sector and considering the role of the Government, the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as directly funded museums.

I should add at this stage a response to the noble Lord’s reference to a number of cuts. We urge caution when referencing data which some people have used from the Museums Association’s closure map. Many of the closures cited are no longer accurate; some museums have reopened or relocated while others have simply never closed. DCMS officials are engaged with the Museums Association and are keen to ensure that the resource is as accurate as possible.

My Lords, perhaps I may cite another quotation from The Culture White Paper. The Government say:

“Museums are jewels in our national crown and we want to ensure that they remain so and are as best-placed as they can be to continue supporting our aspirations for access, place-making and soft power”.

What credibility does that statement now have? Is it not a bit of a hostage to fortune in the face of government cuts to local authority funding which, as we have heard, have caused the closure of so many museums?

My Lords, I should draw attention again to the points I have made on the Museums Association figures. We also have to look at new models of how museums are funded. As noble Lords have said, local authorities are significant funders of the arts. There are opportunities for new partnerships, and it is the role of the Arts Council to share good practice and help build capacity in both the cultural sector and local government. I can give a number of examples, such as Durham County Council’s recent blockbuster exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent at the Bowes Museum. Any profits have been divided between the museum and the council.

My Lords, I am most grateful. In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor referred to cuts in the heritage and arts fields as being a false economy. That was a splendid statement and we are all extremely grateful for it, and for the settlements that were announced. But does my noble friend agree that, unless some aid is given to local authorities, that statement will come to sound hollow? It really is crucial that we do not lose some of the brightest and best of our smaller museums which are scattered around the country.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Cormack referred to the comprehensive spending review and how departmental spend on museums was ring-fenced. He also referred to some of the smaller regional museums. This is why we are holding the museums review as part of The Culture White Paper.

My Lords, it is the turn of either the Cross Benches or the Bishops, and I would imagine that the House will want to hear from the Bishops before we go to the Cross Benches and then back to the Labour Benches.

My Lords, if the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse is to have any reality behind it, it has to include access to culture and cultural developments. In the light of that, will the Minister give an assurance that the sword of Damocles hanging over the National Media Museum in Bradford might at last be lifted? Sometimes up there it feels as if London is saying, “Out, damned spot!”.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the northern powerhouse. Perhaps I should add that DCMS is sponsoring loans to museums at 1,629 different venues. As far as Manchester in particular is concerned—

I beg your pardon; I thought that the right reverend Prelate referred to Manchester. I think that the right reverend Prelate was referring to the Royal Photographic Society collection, some of which has now been moved to London. That move has provided far better access to the collection because the Victoria and Albert Museum has committed to digitising the collection and thus make it more widely available.

My Lords, do the Government have any plans to start reversing the cuts to local authority funding, because that is the root cause of the problem?

The noble Earl has made his view on any form of cuts very clear in the past, and of course I do not agree with him. This is why we are having a review into museums in The Culture White Paper.

Is the Minister convinced that regional museums, large and small, and museums in the devolved authorities are having their fair share of works of art which are given in lieu of tax?

My Lords, the small museums provide a marvellous service to all those concerned. I am unaware of the exact details of any works of art in lieu of tax, so I shall write to the noble Lord on that issue.

My Lords, for 20 years I had the honour to be heavily involved in the National Maritime Museum, which is now Royal Museums Greenwich, and was chairman for 10 years. Many of us felt that the big 12 in this country are so rich with their works of art and everything we have on that side. Our collections are marvellous. We discussed many times that, to really help the regional museums, the big 12 should use much of their collections which are below decks, to use an expression, and not above—nearly 90%—for exhibitions to go right round the country. That would have a huge effect on places, not just educationally and locally, but for tourism, which is a very important factor for the future. Will the Minister please look into that to see whether it can be encouraged and helped?

My Lords, perhaps I should point out to my noble friend that the national museums do in fact span the country. The Royal Armouries, the Tate, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum all have regional sites outside London. The national collections have partnerships with other organisations, focusing not only on loans but on sharing skills, expertise, education and learning, and working with communities.

My Lords, what provisions are being made for York, where not only has its museums been closed but many of the sites were flooded, and the council simply does not have the resources to deal with both problems?

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness was referring to the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. As we all know, it suffered a great deal of flooding damage earlier this year, or last year, and is now looking to raise a total of £2 million—£500,000 from general public fund-raising ventures and the remainder from private trusts, foundations and corporate sponsorship. I should point out to the noble Baroness and the House that York Minster, York Museums Trust and York Theatre Royal are all helping with items from the museum to be on show.