Back in December last year I posted asking ‘Why do people rally to save libraries but not museums?‘. Many of the reasons revolved around the different relationships people have with their local library compared to their local museum, the types of services they offer, and especially the idea that part of using a library involves visiting it regularly: libraries are simply more embedded in people’s daily lives than museums. But a few other responses addressed the perception that libraries were under threat, but museums weren’t because ‘the immediate threat to museums isn’t highlighted’. Libraries took to social and traditional media, asking both famous and ordinary library users to speak up on their behalf (e.g. Voices for the Library, Speak up for libraries, and sample press coverage on the BBC ‘Library closure threats spark campaigns across England‘ and Guardian ‘The campaign to save libraries continues‘), but museums were largely silent as they quietly said goodbye to staff, reduced their services or simply closed.
Some reasons why museums might not be taking their fight to survive against cuts to the public are highlighted in this piece from the Museums Association‘s Museums Journal: Head to Head, with David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool and Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield. It’s a really important conversation for the UK’s museum sector, so I’d encourage you to go read it yourself, but to pick up some important points, David Fleming says:
‘I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would think it’s useful to the museum sector for us to keep quiet about the funding cuts that are affecting so many of us. … our sector, unlike many other sectors, appears to be reluctant to talk about the impact that cuts are having, and I don’t know why.’
The reason for silence seems to be (from Simon Wallis):
‘I think we do need to be very wary of how what we are communicating can be seen by the public. I frequently encounter derision and anger from some people over receiving what they see as a “public subsidy” taking money from taxpayers’ pockets for non-essential elitist services.’
I suspect there are other reasons that contribute to the silence, like gagging orders about cuts and redundancies at councils, and if you haven’t already read Nick Poole’s The Ties that Bind, go read it now. One quote that’s relevant to museums’ silence over cuts is: ‘The National Museums will broker a deal under which the cuts to baseline budgets are maintained at 3-5% per annum for the next 2 years, in return for which they may be fairly quiescent on the question of overall public subsidy of culture and the arts.’
I don’t think a fear of comments about ‘elitism’ should be enough to stop museums taking their fight to the public, especially when, as another Museums Journal article points out, thirty museums and heritage sites have shut in the past two years. Maybe it’s time to get over that fear and ask the public if they want to lose their museums?