Art Fund museum survey reveals collecting crisis

  • 11 May 2006

New research published by The Art Fund reveals many museums are no longer actively collecting and warns that the collecting habit may become a thing of the past.

Read the museum survey key findings

Read what museums have to to say.

The survey reveals that 70% of UK museums now acquire objects mainly or solely by gift, and 60% allocate no funds at all for adding to their collections.

The Art Fund’s research exposes a real crisis in funding and a failure by central and local government to recognise the importance of collecting to the life of our museums.

The Art Fund’s UK-wide research, the first authoritative study into museum and gallery collecting activity, was completed by 305 institutions (1/6 of all accredited museums) and exposes massive gulfs between different types of museums and across the regions.

It points to a worrying trend – the focus on improving education, access and social inclusion is diverting museums from the central task of building their collections. Lack of advocacy and support for collecting in both central and local government means there is a danger that the collecting habit is being lost, along with the skills and expertise necessary for it.

David Barrie, Director of The Art Fund said:

“These figures for the first time put real facts behind concerns we and the sector have had for some time. Our research shows that there is a real crisis in funding and as a result morale in museums is low – we urge the Government to adopt a more positive approach. Collections are at the heart of museums – they must be continually enriched and renewed to keep our museums vibrant and appealing, to educate and inform now and in the future.”

Museums are passively collecting, instead of actively collecting:

  • 70% of museums said the main source of acquiring is by gift and 95% of the objects donated are of little or no monetary value
  • Just 2% of museums cited collecting as a top priority
  • The knock-on effect is a loss of curatorial skill and stagnant museum collections

The funding crisis:

  • Only 10% of UK museums allocate a fixed proportion of their income for collecting, and 60% of museums were unable to allocate any income for collecting last year
  • One third of museums have seen a decrease in the funds they allocate to purchases in the last five years. Local authority-owned museums in particular have seen budgets slashed
  • This has meant museums losing out on significant objects and resources being diverted away from collecting

The huge disparities between types of museums and regions:

  • The three poorest regions are East Midlands, East of England, West Midlands
  • The richest region is London
  • Last year national museums purchased more than three times the volume of objects than all other types of museums put together – nationals purchase on average of around 100 objects last year, compared to just 5 by independent museums – and 20% of independent collections purchased nothing at all

Future threats to collecting:

  • 96% of museums – across all types – feel inadequate core funding is a serious barrier to collecting
  • 84% of museums said the shortage of space is a real problem
  • 50% said shortage of curatorial expertise
  • 27% said spiralling art market prices

Art Fund action:

  • The Art Fund will announce a new grant-giving scheme to promote active collecting in the autumn

The research, The Collecting Challenge: The Art Fund Museum Survey 2006, was undertaken by FreshMinds, a London-based research company with a proven track record in public sector practice. A sample of 305 museums completed an online survey. The Art Fund supplemented this with a series of one-to-one interviews.

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What Museums Say

'As an independent museum in receipt of no external core funding, it is difficult to justify money to acquire new objects. Curators are often made to feel 'dirty', especially when there is little money to pay for essential services in the museum, such as cleaning staff or electricity bills'
An independent museum in the South East
'Much of what we acquire is donated to the museum. These gifts are vital to our collection - particularly as, when we do identify something that we would like to acquire, we often struggle to find sufficient funding for the purchase'
Liz Weston, Curator, Mansfield Museum
'We would love to collect more of the treasure that is found in this region - our local heritage - but our purchase fund goes nowhere. It is a drop in the ocean compared to the funds we need to meet our aspirations. Collecting ought not to be such a luxury - it is the lifeblood of museums'
Sally Dummer, Collections Manager, Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries
‘The fact that the individual museum cannot contribute to the asking price means that potential local benefactors will not help either - in the past local individuals or businesses would help if they saw the institution were making an effort themselves’.
Arthur G. Credland, Keeper, Hull Maritime Museum
'There is a serious misunderstanding by government agencies - both local and national - of the importance of active acquisition. The health of a collection depends on its growth, and even in an age of severely stretched budgets, acquisitions must not be seen as luxuries.'
An academic collection in the Northwest
‘The museum has crafted a realistic acquisition policy which clearly reflects the link between its collections and its audience and programme aspirations. However, its purchasing power is so limited it simply cannot compete in the market place – this could lead to a reactive, rather than proactive, collecting culture'.
Paul Goodman, Head of Collections, National Museum of Photography, Film & Television