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The Election 2015 – a challenge for museums?

The Election 2015 – a challenge for museums?

Neville Stankley explores the repercussions of the 2015 elections for the heritage sector

As one of the most unpredictable election campaigns in recent history unexpectedly lead to a single party majority Conservative government. Those of us working in the cultural sector might be worried, but would we have been better off with Labour or a centre-left coalition?

The Labour Party – What would they have done?
For one thing they would have continued to fund free entry to national museums. However, their regional agenda also gets a mention. Their manifesto offered a vague commitment to universal free access to great art and national heritage ‘in all parts of the country’. Nothing concrete or tangible is added to this promise. It leaves us to speculate what might have been. Interestingly for those of us who went through ‘Renaissance in the Regions’ years they would have required all organisations that receive arts funding to open their doors to young people. I note they were not going to encourage, or enable, but require. Would it have been the stereotypical Labour ‘money with straitjacket’ approach that hampered Renaissance funding – we will never know.

I have issues with the ‘free museums’ policy, but I will discuss that more fully later. But I can appreciate Labour’s regional agenda

The Liberal Democrat Party – After an election where the Liberal Democrats disappeared into the political wilderness, it seems laughable to examine their manifesto in relation to museums. The fact that they didn’t have a policy beyond the continued free entry to national museums means that they should not remain long in our thoughts.

Scottish National Party – The big winners on election night continue to ignore the existence of museums entirely as they did during the referendum campaign. At least Plaid Cymru pledged free entry to the National Museum of Wales.

What of the emerging fringe parties in England?

The Green Party – Their manifesto statement on museums needs noting,

“Increase government arts funding by £500 million a year to restore the cuts made since 2010 and reinstate proper levels of funding for local authorities, helping to keep local museums, theatres, libraries and art galleries open.”

On the surface it appears too good to be true. Ignoring the fact that the Green Party will have no influence at all in Parliament in cultural matters, it is too good to be true. As with much Green Party policy the question that is always in the back of your mind is ‘how are they going to pay for it?’ It is wonderfully aspirational, optimistic and naïve.

UKIP – It seems museums don’t fit into the UKIP’s idealised version England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ (they actually use that phrase in their manifesto). Their priorities are ‘heritage’ and ‘tourism’ but without acknowledging museums’ contribution to both concepts. A Minister of Heritage and Tourism in the cabinet is a policy aim and they will prioritise conservation over development without being too precise on how they will alter planning policy and legislation to achieve this. However, they have pledged something that has been a Historic Houses Association campaign for years. They promised to remove VAT on repairs to listed buildings. The Earl of Leicester, (former President of the HHA) came out in support of UKIP just before he died. So if you add country house heritage support to the specific UKIP policy support for pubs and ‘the great British seaside’ you have what amounts to an actual attempt to create a post-war fantasy Britain that got the short shrift it deserved from the electorate.

In the end we have ended up with a Conservative government – what will they offer museums in the next 5 years?

The Conservative Party – The Conservative Party manifesto is very specific, but brief. In a whole paragraph related to heritage and museums they pledge to continue the road improvements around Stonehenge and continue free entry to the national museums. They see fit to mention the creation of an India gallery in Manchester through a partnership with The Manchester Museum (a University museum) and the British Museum and also a Great Exhibition for in the ‘North’.

All this adds up to a slightly surprising set of pledges. Honey pot tourist attractions and northern ‘outreach’ developments are a priority. Regional museums, independent museums, Arts Council England aren’t mentioned – worrying.

I have a problem with free museums. They establish the idea in the public’s head that you can pay to visit Stonehenge or a country house, but a museum should be free (the visitor profile to national museums is dominated by inbound tourism so a domestic audience doesn’t take that much advantage of the policy anyway.) The damage this conceptual threat does to independent and regional museums that have to charge undermines ACE’s resilience and sustainability agenda. Museums will close.

Local authorities will continue to suffer. The manifesto pledges to limit Council Tax increases, but gives no mention to improving the Revenue Support Grant. I can only foresee more cuts. Museums will close.

I could be optimistic, but unfettered conservatism has seen the attraction of ‘heritage and tourism in terms of economics and national identity, but has always had a problem with museums. I think we are in for 5 years of great challenge when we need to fight for the concept of the museum harder than ever before to ensure survival. By which I don’t just mean improved business acumen, but to actually redefine what a museum is in the first part of the Twenty-First Century.

This post is by Neville Stankley, Principal Lecturer in Heritage Management at Nottingham Trent University, Partnership Liaison Officer for EMMS and key practitioner for the region.


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