Last week David Cameron gave a lovely heart-felt speech all about how the UK has been not promoting its touristic charms effectively. He argues that the significance of England’s heritage had been underplayed by the previous administration: “"The last government underplayed our tourist industry. There were eight different ministers with responsibility for tourism in just 13 years. They just didn't get our heritage. They raided the national lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn't go with their image of 'cool Britannia'," (which is quite a fair point). Certainly museums and galleries boosted the UK's economy by £1bn last year. However, the irony is that not that long before making this speech Cameron’s “bonfire of the Quango’s” saw the abolition of the Museum, Libraries and Archive council by 2012; with the Culture Minister considering a review of the role and remit of English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.. The DCMS is also heading for major redundancies () - and more recently we’ve seen potential plans for the hiving off of nature reserves to private management. There have also been increased calls by the government for museum funding to be funded through philanthropy – along with Cameron’s wider call for a volunteering ethos as part of his “Big Society” idea (if we can call it an ‘idea’).
In many ways there is relatively little which is particularly controversial- if there are going to be spending cuts (and I’ll skip the whole cuts v tax rise debate) then I have no problem with the arts and heritage taking some of the pain; equally, I have no problem with people giving up their time to help museums (let’s face it, outside the nationals and major regional museums, most museums rely on huge amounts of volunteer support already). I’m equally relaxed with wealthy people giving museums huge bags of filthy lucre.
I don’t particularly want to get drawn into some of the wider discussions about the importance of museum and heritage in general – not surprisingly, as a professional archaeologist, I am of the opinion that these things are generally a ‘good thing’ and should be encouraged and promoted. I have very little sympathy for the more instrumentalist view of heritage (i.e it's not the intrinsic value of heritage itself that counts but the wider impact it can have on society - such as engagement with the National Curriculum, promotion of literacy/numeracy, as well as ‘softer’ functions, such as promoting social cohesion; and most importantly heritage as a creator of wealth) – although I’ve not been above seizing the instrumentalist agenda when it comes to writing proposals for grants and funding for my own work. What currently gets my goat is that in a fairly typical case of doublethink, the new government is busy promoting British heritage as a source of income and prosperity through its intimate links with the tourism industry, whilst simultaneously hacking at the roots of the sector in other ways.
If the queues outside the National Railway Museum, just round the corner from me, are anything to go by, then the national museums aren’t going to have too much problem surviving. They have the internationally important collections and high profiles which will make it relatively easy for them to attract personal and commercial sponsorship, and have the high visitor numbers that will make it possible for then to weather minor drops in footfall. However, it’s the smaller, local museums that are more likely to suffer from attacks on the support infrastructure. As I noted above, they already rely heavily on volunteers to support them. Whilst there is undoubtedly much to criticise about the MLA, they do provide some of the professional expertise (security, collections management, conservation, interpretation) that smaller museums don’t have on tap. On a purely personal level, it is visiting local museums as a child that triggered by interest in the past (a brief roll of honour would have to include Reading Museum; the Museum of English Rural Life; Deal Maritime and Local History Museum amongst many others). If the government are really committed to an instrumental heritage agenda and promoting tourism, it would be good to see more commitment to supporting these kind of local institutions, as these, as much as the nationals, have potential for feeding the tourism industry. It's worrying,although not surprising, to see a complete lack of the 'joined-up thinking' that governments of all political stripes are so keen on connected to this issue. Sadly, its going to be the local and small museums that have less capacity and less ability to weather financial storms that are going to suffer (and don't even get me started on the way the HLF has been raided to support the Olympics.....)