What’s the culture and heritage sector looking like post-election?
Just over a month after the fateful day that may influence the history books for some time, it’s time to look back and consider what we know now.
From the moment that we realised that Theresa May was looking to our counterparts in Northern Ireland for support, panic appears to have set in across the museums and heritage sector. A particularly outdated article regarding the request of a creationist exhibition at the Ulster Museum struck fear into our hearts; how will our natural history museums fare under the influence of Democratic Unionist Party(DUP)?
Actually, the outcry doesn’t seem to have been necessary. Although the main headline for the last couple of weeks has focused on the £1 billion promised to Northern Ireland in order to secure votes on the benches, there seems to have been little else said about any future plans. There has been no comment on the religious standpoint of the DUP, much less has it seemed to have had any influence over the actions of the government. We are only weeks away from the recess of parliament, so it is unlikely if anything will be clear about the intentions of the Conservatives until late September at the earliest.
However, we can look at the DUPs typical standpoint on museums and heritage in the past – how much should articles like the one mentioned above really worry those of us in the sector?
There is no denying that in 2009/10 it seemed that museums and heritage were the focus of certain members of the DUP. Melvin Storey, not an MP now I might add, threatened legal action against the Ulster Museum if they did not include a creationist exhibition alongside their planned exhibition series on Charles Darwin in 2009. Although he didn’t actually object to the inclusion of Darwins’ ‘theory’ in the exhibitions, he argued that there was a need to give visitors to the museum options of what they might believe.
At a similar time, Storey attacked the new visitor centre, funded by the Northern Irish Assembly, at the Giants Causeway. The interpretation of the causeway states its age, so again not giving visitors the option. Although reported in national news, it seems unclear whether any repercussions occurred as a result.
In 2010, Nelson McCausland, again not currently an MP, called upon the Ulster Museum to include creationism in their exhibitions. He argued that one third of the population of Northern Ireland believed that the world was only approximately 7,000 years old, and as such should have their beliefs included in the museums content. Condemned by many, including Professor Richard Dawkins, it seems that again, there were no actions as a result of the complaint.
It has to be said however, that as well as being some years ago, these views do not seem to represent the rest of the DUP’s view on the museums and heritage sector. From looking at their manifesto for the 2017 election, museums and heritage, although are not a focus for the party, have been a strong focus in the past.
In 2013, the DUP produced the 30 Achievements in 30 Months publication, publicising the successes of the Northern Ireland Assembly (led by the DUP) since 2011. It presented the dedication of the Assembly to the tourism of Northern Ireland; £38.5 billion was given to support the creation of Titanic Belfast, and £9 million to support the new visitor centre at the Giants Causeway were used as evidence of their support. Although funding cuts would likely affect museums and heritage, it might not be as bad as it seems.
It must be noted that the most recent manifesto does stress the need to ‘reform public services’, with a clear focus on schools, hospitals and policing. This may well include the extensive public funding cuts to the museums and heritage sector that we are already facing under the previous Conservative government. It must also be considered that further funding cuts may well be a possibility, as more funding for Northern Ireland must be found from somewhere.
In the long run though, it really doesn’t look quite as hopeless for the DUPs influence in the House of Commons if the previous standpoint on museums is anything to go by. Yes, there are those within the Northern Irish Assembly who have, in the past, been influential in criticising museums.
Yes, the increase in funding for activities in Northern Ireland will probably have further influence on the current state of funding for the sector.
But it does seem clear that the future of museums may not be as bleak as originally thought in the first few days following the election. The influence of one or two individuals seems to be less influential than we originally thought, and as such it is evident that we can worry slightly less about the future policies with DUP influence.
There has been good news recently too, with the Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation funding decisions being released. Those who missed out on the funding, wait to hear about the revised Arts Council funding streams, Grants for Arts and Culture and Strategic Funding. Information on these is expected to be released in October 2017, ready for applications from April 2018 and there are, of course, other funders such as Heritage Lottery Fund.
Come the autumn, there may be need for further analysis of what actually takes place once the house resumes sitting and how museums plan to make use of the altered funding landscape.
Written by Hollie Davison, Project Manager