Opinion: Why it’s so important to support your local museum

Two visitors look at displays inside the Museum of Making in Derby.
Visitors at the Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill, Art Fund Museum of the Year finalist 2022

As many Local Authority-funded museums face funding cuts, here Tony Butler, executive director of Derby Museums, explains the threat facing the UK’s civic museums and why their continued existence is vital.

From Carlisle to Canterbury, Truro to Tyneside, civic museums can be found in towns and cities across England. Many predate national institutions – Leeds Museum opened its doors 205 years ago – while others, such as Derby Museum, had their origins in the local literary and philosophical society. They signify our national history, industry and imperialism, struggle and improvement, civic pride and social change.

They take a long view of the story of a place, contextualising global events with local issues. Their often multidisciplinary collections are a common treasury, with fine and decorative art, natural science, world cultures, archaeology and history: a world of discovery on our doorsteps.

The collections of art and industry in Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield would be the envy of any nation’s capital. Smaller towns and cities have equally remarkable displays: Ancient Egypt in Bolton, ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent and Roman archaeology in Colchester.

Places for innovation and community

They are also places of innovation. As a postgraduate in the 1990s I studied the social-history displays at Discovery Museum in Newcastle, which placed hitherto unheard voices in the museum. More recently, major new developments in Manchester Museum, Derby’s Museum of Making and Glasgow’s Burrell Collection [Art Fund Museum of the Year 2023] have led the way in museums co-creating with their local communities.

Civic museums are often the first experience a child will have of a museum, through a school trip or a holiday activity. They create habitual museum-going and are incubators for the thinkers and creatives of tomorrow.

An adult helps a child with a craft activity at the Museum of Making in Derby.
Visitors at the Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill
© Emli Bendixen / Art Fund

The Government’s 2022 Levelling Up White Paper cites local museums as major contributors to pride in place. Equally, they attract visitors to the area and, as retail declines, culture and heritage are increasingly important to the regeneration of town centres. In Derby, research published in 2023 showed that for every £1 invested in the Museum of Making, £5.86 of social value is created.

Above all, regional museums are cherished by locals. When the Museum of Making was flooded during Storm Babet last year, Derbians donated more than £10,000 in a few days to contribute to its clean-up and reopening.

An existential threat

But love and individual donations might not be enough. Civic museums face an existential threat. Their principal source of income is from local government, and more than a decade of austerity meted out to councils by Westminster has hollowed them out.

At the time of writing, councils such as Birmingham and Nottingham had declared section 114 notices, unable to balance their budgets. Suffolk County Council proposes to withdraw funding for culture completely.

Spiralling costs for services that councils must provide by law, in particular the broken market in children’s social care where there is no cap for what private providers can charge councils, mean there is little left for culture and leisure – services that contribute to everyday wellbeing and make life worth living.

The change is palpable. Buildings look shabby, opening times may be reduced, there are fewer temporary exhibitions, admission charges are being considered and galleries are often closed for private events during visiting hours. Plus there are fewer curators, meaning less research to increase public understanding.

Recently published research funded by Arts Council England shows a 37% decrease in real-terms expenditure on civic museums since 2010. They desperately need a ‘new deal’ in state funding that supports innovation whilst underpinning long-term sustainability. English Civic Museums Network (ECMN) is calling for a national enquiry into the role regional museums play in England’s towns and cities with a specific focus on delivering a sustainable funding model for the future.

I’d love regular visitors to ‘choose their local museum’, not just to visit its collection but to meet for coffee, have their business meetings in its café, buy gifts in its shop, become a member and lobby their councillor or MP to remind them how valued their museum is. Because, as Joni Mitchell sang, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’

This article appears in the spring 2024 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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