Here's an obviously unrealistic but plausible scenario for how the next 5 years will play out for UK museums. The Department for Culture Media and Sport, protected briefly by the Olympics, will find itself reducing its staffing and budgets by 20-30% in 2013-14. Responding to an increasingly diffuse Ministerial portfolio, it will find itself increasingly defending a vague culture, diversity and equalities agenda. This agenda will be swept aside by the rising tide of policy around jobs and growth.
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. The Arts Council itself, challenged with a new museum portfolio by reduced investment, will strive to maintain an equitable distribution of funds, but will come increasingly to rely on the maxim that the best way to fund excellence is to fund excellence, rather than to try and encourage the weak to become stronger.
The Museums Association, for many the last bastion of the museum sector's national self-identity, will find itself conflicted between advocating a leftist social policy agenda and addressing the realpolitik of philanthropy and economic dependency. It will find itself increasingly fighting for a museum Atlantis - an evaporated community which has left no visible trace on mainstream politics. At worst, it will be a beacon of Blairite social engineering in an economic storm. At best, a pillar of solidarity for this generation's museum community.
In the English Nations, these concerns will become increasingly polarised and London-centric. The continued progression of Devolution will see Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue to develop national cultural policies which respond to the immediate concerns of their National communities, with only the vaguest sense of professional solidarity left - mainly in the vestige of the Museum Accreditation Scheme.
Museums themselves will trace the contours of economic inevitability - their boards will become increasingly right-of-centre, their missions will erode in favour of the language of business and Return on Investment, their missions will come to be seen to be luxurious in the face of hard economic realities like tourism, retail and footfall.
Ultimately, the very principle of culture as a public realm, championed in the embers of the last Labour Government, will come to be seen as a remnant of Labour's public profligacy. The new museum rhetoric will be the language of business, of value and jobs and price and capitalisation.
At the same time, economic forces will discover new fault lines across the sector. The most immediate of these will be between art and science - art museums will increasingly be assimilated into the rhetoric of the Cultural and Creative Industries. They will, almost by silent assent, be forced to abandon the principle of expertise and the canon in favour of the avant-grade, the experimental and the hegemony of the artist/curator.
Science museums, on the other hand, will adopt the language of business, innovation and enterprise. Eschewing the soft economy of the humanities, science-based museums will come to talk about the economic exploitation of research and supporting Europe, not as a cultural or political union but as an aggregator of trade and economic influence.
And this is not the only division that will emerge. As the museum community progresses, it will increasingly include a generation who have not been steeped in the post-Thatcherite rhetoric of class struggle, inclusion and diversity. This generation will question why the museum sector is torturing itself over the question of social justice and will instead come to prize industry and entrepreneurialism over accountability and diversity. A division between museums-as-businesses and museums-as-social-activists will not only emerge, but polarise.
And in this obviously rhetorical world. the social mission of the museum, the idea of museums as agents of social change, will come to be seen as amiably wrong-headed and anachronistic - the preserve of a museum intelligentsia rather than the collective mission of an industry. Social outcomes, lacking an evidential basis, will come to be replaced by hard indicators about participation, impact and long-term return on investment.
And then gradually, as the global political rhetoric begins to grind inexorably away from the language of recession and toward the language of growth, values and principles will come to re-assert themselves. Politicians will come to speak of entitlement and inclusion, at first as an economic principle, and subsequently as a social one. Instrumentalism will give way to assertive confidence in the intrinsic value of strength, and unity, and identity.
Ultimately, English society will return to the idea of strength in cultural identity as a product of strength in industry and economy. By the time this happens, many museums will have closed, and many others will have learned no longer to depend on subsidy. As the economic and political unity of the Nations becomes increasingly important in the face of increased economic union within Europe, we will see the emergence of concordats between National Governments, leading ultimately to UK-wide policies for the Arts, Culture and Tourism.
The opportunity to prevent all this happening passed three years ago, and the systematic withdrawal of strategic leadership for the sector means that there simply is no more 'line in the sand'. There is absolutely nothing, short of the miraculous discovery of a pro-culture, left-of-centre right-wing Minister, which will prevent the above from happening. We gave up the battle when we gave up the MLA without a murmer, and there is now no-one, at any level, with the requisite accountability and independence to prevent it from happening.
The result of all of this for museums in 5 years time is that every museum will be an island, entire and accountable only to itself. The idea of professional or cultural solidarity will still exist, but it will be a clear economic trade of knowledge and expertise, rather than the unfettered flow of knowledge in the academic sector. National principles like the Museum Accreditation Scheme will continue only to the extent that they deliver clear and immediate competitive advantage to the particular institution. Overall, the principle of cultural accountability will lose out to economic reality.
Since first publishing this post yesterday, many readers have been in contact to point out that I have missed out the positive side of this picture entirely. This is a fair point - museums will continue to do amazing things, inspire and delight people and provide access to our natural and man-made heritage. The point is not that these things won't continue to happen, but that a sector that does so much, with such creativity, deserves better in terms of leadership and representation.
It was not necessary for museums to be left undefended against a changing political climate. It was, after all, fairly inevitable that after a period of such relative plenty, we would see significant reductions in public expeniture. But we could have chosen to fight this process, to protect as much as possible of what was achieved before. Instead, the structures of political influence have been dismantled, and all of the advances in the public agenda for museums risk being lost.
Ultimately, though, I believe that the link between a strong society and a strong cultural offer is inalienable, and that this logic will ultimately re-assert itself. Although it may not have been clear in the original text, my aim was to point out that things will ultimately swing back in favour of a socially-accountable culture sector. The main question is not whether the political sun will shine on museums again, but on how much of what we have today we will have managed to keep hold of when this happens.
Thanks for all the comments - keep them coming!
written by Robert Forsythe, October 22, 2012