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Museums and Galleries

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 23 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that museums and galleries remain accessible to the public.

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring access to museums and galleries because their world-class collections help people understand our culture and heritage, improve well-being and support learning. Museums are supported by public funding worth more than £800 million annually. The UK Government remain committed to free entry to the permanent collections of our 15 national museums. Through Arts Council England, DCMS aims to improve cultural participation for everyone regardless of their background.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. It is important that museums and galleries should remain accessible to the public, but I hope that they will not be forced by today’s fragile funding climate to close any part of them. Does the Minister agree that, whatever their circumstances, any policy decision on whether to make any changes or charges should be taken by their trustees, not by a central body? Perhaps they should even have more of a say because each gallery and museum has very different circumstances.

I confirm that we are very strong supporters of the museum sector. The 2017 Mendoza review of museums found that some have faced challenging financial circumstances but that, alternatively, others have grown and thrived. My noble friend is right: where there are trustees, it is up to them or museum leaders to decide how to run their organisations. On the other hand, where there is public funding, appropriate mechanisms for accountability should be built in to protect the taxpayers’ investment.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is not subject to the same curmudgeonly mood that sometimes overtakes me, but does it sometimes strike him that the more access there is for tourists, the less there is for others? If he thinks that there is any kind of problem here, does he have any thoughts about how to manage it?

It is a dynamic sector. The noble Lord will know that there are over 3,000 museums in the UK, and there has been a net growth of 9%. That is very good news, although some museums have closed, so we constantly keep an eye on what goes on. It is very important to maintain access. The point should be made that 48% of visitors come from overseas. It is critical that we make sure that there is access for overseas visitors just as much as there is for domestic visitors, including from the education sector.

My Lords, the local authority museums urgently need better funding. A collection has been lost in Hertford, for example, and there has been a loss of curators at Leicester’s important city museums. The next spending review must take these things into account.

I have no doubt that the spending review will look closely at the museum sector. It usually does, but I cannot comment otherwise on that. It is also important for local authorities to feel that they are able to explore new funding and service delivery models. As I said earlier, the Government believe that funding decisions should be made at the local level. Local authorities are best placed to decide how to prioritise their spending, as each individual museum has its own particular issues.

My Lords, since 2012 the museums and schools programme has enabled nearly half a million schoolchildren from highly deprived areas to access museums and benefit from the collections and the skills of the museum staff. However, the former three-year funding regime has now been replaced by a year-on-year regime, which is bringing about uncertainty and difficulty in planning. Will the noble Viscount seek to work with relevant Ministers and the Chancellor to revert to the three-year funding cycle and ensure the continuity of this excellent scheme?

To echo the words of the noble Lord, learning is at the heart of museums. It is very important that young people visit them and understand the background of the various exhibits. Fifty-eight per cent of children visited a museum or gallery in 2017-18. I take note of what the noble Lord says but in the 2018-22 funding period Arts Council England, through which much money is given by government for museums, is investing £160,000 annually in Kids in Museums. This, along with other initiatives, helps to encourage more young people to visit museums and galleries.

That was of course a rhetorical question. Perhaps I may ask the one to which I know the answer but I want to hear it from the noble Viscount’s own mouth. The Dutch and British Governments have had to negotiate very hard to make the van Gogh exhibition, currently showing here, available. The fear on the part of the Dutch is that the Brexit deus ex machina will take over all our considerations and make it impossible for them to repatriate their works once they have come here without there being a great tax implication. Is the noble Viscount able to reassure us that the current impasse in the Brexit discussions is not affecting our cultural heritage being made available to as many people as possible?

I note that the noble Lord received a cheer for what he said at the beginning of his remarks, and I confirm again that for the 15 museums entry will remain free. On his point about Brexit, much planning has taken place to anticipate Brexit issues, including at the DCMS, which has been working with our world-leading national museums to evaluate the potential impacts of Brexit and provide support. Due to the ongoing uncertainty, national museums and galleries have drawn up detailed plans for Brexit, including the possibility of no deal, and I am sure that they will include the points that the noble Lord has made regarding the continent and Holland.