Hundreds of civic museums in towns and cities across England are in a state of high jeopardy and some may never reopen without government action, museum leaders have said.
They say organisations face an existential threat at a time when they could be playing a pivotal role in “reawakening and reimagining” town and city centres.
Consultations on large-scale redundancies have already been announced by museum trusts in Birmingham and York. Local authorities, often the main funder of civic museums, have said their finances are in a potentially perilous state, with at least five English councils suggesting they may not be able to balance their budgets.
In a joint statement, the English Civic Museums Network, the Museums Association and the National Museum Directors’ Council call on the government to extend the cultural recovery fund into 2021-22 and to provide funding settlements for councils that enable them to invest in museums.
Tony Butler, the director of Derby Museums Trust, said museums were most worried about the next financial year. “Talk to any local government funding chief and they will say there are big problems ahead.”
He said museums and galleries knew from bitter experience of government austerity policies that they are among the first to suffer when cuts have to be made.
In early July Derby was one of the first city museums to reopen after lockdown. “We saw our role as being in the vanguard of reactivating the city centre,” said Butler.
“In the future, there will be a further decline in retail in town and city centres and in its place leisure and culture will play a much bigger role in attracting people. Once we’re through this, there is a huge potential for museums to play their part in regeneration.”
Derby Museum and Art Gallery has the world’s finest and largest collection of works by Joseph Wright of Derby, paintings that can currently be enjoyed in relative quiet. “There are some real treasures in our museum and they help us understand our place in the world when life is in such flux,” said Butler.
Civic museums are predicting an average 81% drop in commercial profits and 66% fall in donations this year.
Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, said she was “deeply concerned” that some museums will not be able to reopen after lockdown.
“We are already hearing of major local authorities that are considering not funding their museums and galleries because they are non-statutory services,” she said. “Museums are vital civic spaces and can play a critical role in rebuilding and recovery with their communities – but they need funding to be able to do that.”
Ian Blatchford, the director of Science Museum Group and chair of the National Museums Directors’ Council, said: “Civic museums have already weathered brutal cuts to their services over the last 10 years, adapting their business models to find alternative sources of funding, but the current crisis means they are being pushed to the limit.
“This government has already committed to supporting our towns and regions, so investing in museums, a core part of our civic infrastructure, is a key way of ensuring that people everywhere can benefit.”
Museum funding is becoming an increasingly political issue. Over the weekend it emerged that the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, had written to the directors of all government-funded museums and galleries warning them not to remove statues or other artefacts as a result of pressure from campaigners.
In the letter, leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, he said it was imperative that publicly funded bodies acted impartially, particularly as the Treasury embarked on a “challenging” review of all Whitehall spending.