Initiatives such as Museums Change Lives have placed an emphasis on the social value of museum work

Museums are surviving, but they could be thriving

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 03.06.2019
Although the UK’s museums have proven to be adaptable and resilient, almost a decade’s worth of austerity has taken its toll on the sector. Geraldine Kendall Adams reports on the results of the Museums Association’s third Museums in the UK survey
The results of the Museums Association’s (MA) third annual Museums in the UK survey offer a valuable insight into how the museum sector fared in 2017-18 against a backdrop of wider political upheaval. The survey is intended to provide a snapshot of the current outlook and developing trends in the sector. It builds on the findings from previous MA surveys, although it is not intended as a like-for-like comparison.

The survey, which took place between November 2018 and February 2019, received 317 responses, covering 468 museums – a healthy sample size that represents 19% of the UK’s museums. The mix broadly reflects the breadth of the UK sector in terms of museum type and region, and includes respondents from all four nations.

The results paint a complex picture. The museum sector has now been through almost a decade’s worth of austerity and the effects of this have taken their toll. The results show that income continued to shrink for many last year, with 26% of respondents reporting a decrease in their overall funds – the same proportion as in 2016-17. 

Museums that rely on public funding were, unsurprisingly, the hardest hit: 34% of local authority museums and 27% of independent former local authority museums report a decrease in their regular public income. However, this is a significantly smaller proportion than in 2016-17, when the figures were 51% and 58% respectively.

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It may be an encouraging sign that the rate of cuts is slowing, but comments from respondents make it clear that many museums are in an extremely difficult situation. “We are facing severe cuts in our local government funding. We will have to reduce our costs significantly in some way,” writes one respondent. 

Another warns that their museum “is likely to close during the year”, while one says their local authority funding has been cut by a further 30%. 

The decline in public funding correlates with other negative impacts reported in the survey. A noticeably higher proportion of museums that rely on public funding also report a fall in visitor numbers, with 40% of independent former local authorities posting a decrease, along with 26% of local authority museums. This bucks a generally more positive trend in footfall last year, with 52% of all respondents reporting a rise in visitors – up from 47% in 2016-17. 

School visits down

Other areas of museum work also appear to be suffering. Almost a fifth of respondents (18%) report a fall in school visits in 2017-18, a result that may reflect not just funding cuts, but also the continued upheaval caused by changes to the school curriculum in England. 

Over the past few years, there has been a steady, incremental increase in the number of museums that have had to take measures to reduce public access. Thirteen per cent of respondents say they have reduced their opening hours, compared to 11% in 2016-17.
 
A small proportion (3%) say they have introduced an admission charge, similar to the previous year’s 4%.  

After being hit hard in recent years, other public-facing services offered by museums appear to have stabilised. Just 4% of respondents say public events have decreased at their museums, and 9% report a fall in temporary exhibitions. More museums appear to be prioritising investment in these areas, with 43% of respondents saying public events had increased and 29% saying they have held more temporary exhibitions. 

Museums are also getting better at diversifying their income. Forty-seven percent say their earned income from sources such as shops and cafes has risen, a one-point rise on 2016-17. The same proportion, 47%, increased income from grants, donations and philanthropy – a noticeable rise on the 42% who did so in 2016-17. One respondent writes: “Our financial sustainability is best supported by our own efforts.”

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The museum workforce has long been a target for cuts, as many institutions have high fixed running costs and are unable to make savings elsewhere. This year, 20% say there has been a decrease in full-time equivalent staff at their institutions, the same figure as in 2016-17. One cites as a future challenge: “Having enough money to pay staff and no more full-time staff and no money for redundancies.” 

This downward trend shows no signs of abating, with National Museums Northern Ireland and Leicestershire Museums Service among those that have announced redundancies since the survey took place. 

Reliance on volunteers

As staff numbers shrink at some institutions, the sector is becoming increasingly reliant on volunteers. Some museums that formerly had paid employees – such as the recently reopened Judges’ Lodgings museum in Lancaster – are now staffed entirely by unpaid workers.

The survey backs up this trend: 43% of respondents report that the number of volunteers has increased at their museum. “Our curator was paid but we no longer have the funding and she cannot work voluntarily for much longer,” writes one respondent. 

While volunteering makes up a vital part of the sector’s ecology, the replacement of paid staff by volunteers is a cause for concern and issues such as the exploitation of unpaid labour, pressure on remaining staff, devaluing of museum work and loss of expertise and knowledge are likely to become more urgent as the trend continues. 

Many respondents also cite concern about the ageing volunteer workforce, with many saying they are having trouble recruiting younger volunteers to replace those leaving due to old age.

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Other responsibilities

Some respondents are concerned about staff time and resources being diverted away from key museum activities such as collections development. One writes: “More and more curatorial resources [are] being used to try and income-generate. [There’s] less time for research and curatorial practice.”

Another says: “The curator currently spends 75% of time managing the museum. A lack of investment in collection care and documentation impacts on interpretation and the visitor experience.”

Over the past decade, policy developments such as the MA’s Museums Change Lives campaign have placed an emphasis on the social value of museum work, and this year’s survey shows that museums are carrying out a wide range of targeted outreach with specific groups. Some proportions are slightly lower than the previous year, indicating that momentum or funding for these activities may have slowed. 

Seventy-one per cent of museums are doing targeted work with local communities, while 70% are working with schools, down from 74% and 77% respectively in 2016-17. There are also significant proportions working with youth groups (43%), disability groups (36%), black, Asian or minority ethnic communities (19%), LGBTQ+ groups (17%) and refugees or asylum seekers (16%). Other groups that museums cite include army veterans, young carers, home-schooled children, probation services and the travelling community. 

The survey reveals that there has been little change in the proportion of museums that do not have an online presence. One in 10 museums does not have its own website, the same as in 2016-17, while 8% do not use social media to engage audiences. 

Mixed feelings

With public funding continuing to shrink, the MA and other sector bodies have been exploring proposals for other policies to support museums. The survey shows that there are mixed feelings about how well these could work. Opinion is strongly against the idea of a local tourist tax, with 78% of respondents saying it would not be useful to them. One writes: “Absolutely no to tourist tax.”

The same proportion again (78%) do not think a reduction in business rates would help their museum. There is more support for a new central government fund to support initiatives at a local or regional level, with 57% saying this would help – although one respondent writes: “Central government funding too slow and with too many strings/hurdles.” 

Other options, such as match funding and improved marketing for tourism, receive mixed support, with 44% and 51% respectively saying these would be useful. Many respondents make it clear, however, that sustainable core revenue funding is what their institution requires.
 
There has been a slow take-up of the new tax relief for permanent, temporary or touring exhibitions, which was introduced in 2017. This may be because its introduction was deferred due to the general election, though it may also indicate that museums have struggled with the application process, which obliges institutions to set up a limited company in order to qualify. 

The survey shows that just 8% of museums have used the new relief, which is worth up to £30m a year to the sector and can benefit museums of all sizes. This is a cause for concern, as the tax relief is due to expire in 2022 unless it can be demonstrated that it has achieved significant public benefit. 

Emerging trends

Among the new questions included in this year’s survey, several trends are apparent. Environmental sustainability is a priority for a large proportion of museums, with 40% saying they have an action plan in place to improve theirs. 

Respondents have implemented a wide range of measures to address this; several have switched to LED lighting and more efficient heating systems, as well as reducing their printed materials, while some have installed solar panels.

The landmark 2017 David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II, which called on viewers to reduce plastic waste, also appears to have had an impact, with a notable number of respondents saying they are working to eliminate or reduce single-use plastics and switching to compostable products. 

The survey reveals that more work is needed to measure and demonstrate the economic impact of museums. Just 25 respondents provide details of how they are assessing economic impact, although among these there are some eye-catching figures. 

“We are worth £2.4m to the local economy,” writes one. Two larger sites say they provide £30m and £43m GVA (gross added value) respectively to their local area. Unsurprisingly, smaller museums find it more difficult to evaluate their economic impact, indicating that this may be an area in which additional research and assistance is required.     

Brexit anxieties  

The issue of Brexit looms large, although for the most part, it does not yet appear to have had a tangible impact. Asked whether the UK’s departure from the EU will bring with it any risks or opportunities, responses are mostly negative. 

One respondent writes: “We’re all doomed, it seems. Unless we abandon the idea, the country will be poorer for some considerable time, so less wealth, less disposable income, fewer grants.”

Other respondents are concerned about the loss of EU funding, staff and partnerships, or worried that philanthropic donations will dry up if the economy shrinks and the UK becomes “a less attractive place to live”. It isn’t all negative, however. Some predict a significant increase in staycations and local tourism, which one respondent says will “benefit us enormously”. 

This year’s survey reveals a mixed outlook for the sector. There is no doubt that some areas of museum work continue to be badly affected by ongoing and significant funding cuts, particularly staffing, collections and public access. Many of these impacts have built up year-on-year and, after a decade of shrinking public finances, some museums are facing a difficult and uncertain future. 

Green shoots

But there are also some green shoots. Museums have proven to be entrepreneurial and creative when it comes to finding alternative sources of income. There is a positive focus on socially engaged practice and environmental sustainability, though there remains much more potential for growth. 

And it appears that the rate of cuts is slowing, although this does little to counteract the incremental impact of austerity. The coming year will be a significant one for the sector, with a comprehensive spending review taking place and Brexit still on the horizon. It is likely these uncertain times will continue, but the sector is proving its resilience. 

Reflections from the sector

“We hope to be thriving, rather than merely surviving.”

“Deteriorating, under-invested poorly maintained buildings that put the collections at risk. Unable to gain local authority investment into our buildings, therefore unattractive investment for other funders.”

“Our museums, workforce and visitors increasingly reflect the people of the city. Building on this work and the trust we have built provides plenty of opportunities.”

“Continued strain of reducing public funding. We have coped remarkably well with reductions so far, but are now at a stage where the future of the museum service is seriously at risk.”

“The decline of the high street is impacting on visitors to the town and consumer reticence.”

“In 2018 we saw a 105% increase in visitor numbers compared with the previous year, while shop sales increased by 94%. Our challenge for the coming year is to build on this success.”

“We are very small and there aren’t many outlets for us to promote ourselves… it’s hard to be heard above bigger museums.”

“We’re several staff members down, our head of service is leaving and recruitment is uncertain, and we are facing a staff restructure, which will result in job losses. We’ve been told to replace front-of-house staff with volunteers to reduce costs.”

“In a climate of ongoing financial strain, social and political tensions we continue to work towards creating memorable experiences for everyone and challenge expectations. In practice this means, we are working towards more representative audiences and staff profiles.”

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