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Volume 798: debated on Monday 10 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the challenges and opportunities facing national museums.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

My Lords, DCMS-sponsored museums operate independently, at arm’s length from the Government. However, Ministers and officials routinely engage with them to discuss policy, finance and other matters. Our national museums’ remarkable work is reflected in their enduring popularity, with four among the 10 most visited museums worldwide. The Government are committed to fostering an environment in which museums can flourish, seizing opportunities and surmounting occasional challenges while ensuring the whole nation shares in the extraordinary benefits museums confer.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the impressive new V&A museum in Dundee. The council leader and tourism officials told me how the museum has brought a real sense of pride to the city and boosted visitor numbers at other attractions there. Thus, V&A Dundee joins the list of regional affiliates, such as the Imperial War Museum North, Tate Liverpool, Tate St Ives and others, which have stimulated regeneration and spread tourism. Should the Government now be doing much more, and being much more proactive, in encouraging and part-funding other national museums and galleries to similarly develop more regional affiliates? Loaning exhibits, worthwhile though that is, is surely not enough.

I acknowledge the success of V&A Dundee, and setting up satellite museums under the same banner in other locations around the UK certainly sounds like a good idea on paper. However, it is down to the trustees and leadership of museums to decide how to deploy resources and display their artefacts and treasures. In 2018, the Government published a partnership framework to support and enable the national museums to act ever more strategically as a whole on how they work with the wider sector. Contrary to what the noble Lord said, experience has taught the sector that partnerships offer a successful approach for jointly curated exhibitions and galleries, exchanging skills, and so on. In 2016-17, the national museums loaned objects to 1,356 locations across the UK.

My Lords, I hope the Minister recognises the importance of small museums. The most successful small museum in London is the Cartoon Museum, which has been running for 20 years. This week, it moves to new and enlarged premises in Wells Street, near Oxford Street. I hope he and other Members of this House will visit this museum—they might see themselves there. It is the only public building in London that aims to send people out happier than when they entered.

All I can do is acknowledge what my noble friend said. We have heard an extremely good marketing campaign from him.

My Lords, in his initial remarks, the Minister referred to “occasional challenges” that the museum sector might face. What advice would he give to museums and other arts organisations, which are currently facing considerable challenges in securing private and corporate donations? A number of high-profile difficulties have been experienced recently, in a climate in which the Government have steadily reduced the real value of public funding to this sector. What advice does he have for the sector in these circumstances?

We acknowledge and applaud the amount of private funding that goes to museums and we very much want that to continue. The noble Baroness alluded to certain high-profile issues, particularly one that was in the news this morning. The Government are very appreciative of BP’s long-standing support for the arts; its preferred model of long-term partnerships is especially valuable to cultural institutions. To answer the question, the funding of museums has to be a collaboration, led, we hope, locally by local authorities and private funding.

My Lords, our museums are treasure houses of artefacts from around the world. Does the Minister agree that it would enhance understanding and appreciation if the items were better labelled to show how they were—how can I put this kindly—acquired from around the world?

The noble Lord is right. I think most museums have moved on from displaying items in glass cases, which perhaps are not especially helpful, particularly to schoolchildren. It is important for museums to optimise their visitor numbers by displaying items in the most interactive way and thinking about what they are doing in running their businesses.

Does my noble friend agree that one of the defining characteristics of our great museums is the scholarship embodied in their staff? Does he also accept that the pay for these people is often derisory and, in consequence, many of our great national museums are short on highly qualified and expert staff? This is a problem that needs looking at. Does he agree?

It is a problem that all museums would acknowledge, there is no question about that, but I say again that it is down to the trustees and museum leadership to decide how best to deploy their resources to maximise access to collections and programmes, and, indeed, employ staff. At the same time, I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of dedicated and passionate volunteers nationwide, whose vital work brings so much to visiting audiences to museums and galleries.

My Lords, I declare an interest as trustee of the People’s History Museum. Could the Minister explain to the House why our museum is listed on the DCMS website as being sponsored by the department, yet it removed its funding as far back as 2015-16? We are a national museum and all the other national museums attract government funding.

I do not have sight of the website right now, but I will certainly look into that. I say again what I said in answer to a Question on a previous day: entry to the 15 national museums remains free. These 15 museums firmly come under the Government.

My Lords, a few months ago I visited Cardiff and went to the museum there, which was absolutely buzzing, particularly with young people, because Major Tim Peake’s space capsule was on loan from the Science Museum. Although I understand my noble friend’s comment about loans, an imaginative programme of loans—I understand that Dippy the dinosaur is again a major attraction—that uses such exhibits nationally has a marvellous educational role and lifts the profile of the local museum.

Yes, the noble Lord makes a very good point. To be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, it may be that other V&As start up, but the noble Lord, Lord McNally, makes a very good point: it helps enormously to have tours such as those of Dippy the dinosaur and Tim Peake’s capsule because it wakes up the museum and allows schools to take visitors there, which is beneficial for all, particularly for their education.