What is the future for Local Authority museums? Time to consider the trust status option

19 May 2017

As councils confront their continued spending pressures, local authority owned museums have come under the microscope with some councils resorting to selling collections or closing down all or part of museum services.  Our recent three-part blog series explores the choices facing local authority museums as they look to the future, from becoming more commercial and entrepreneurial to considering converting to trust status.

There is a growing need for local authorities to take a hard look at the benefits their museums deliver and the costs of sustaining them.  While museums’ non-statutory status might seem to make them a relatively easy target for savings, this isn’t always the case. Many museum collections have been bequeathed as gifts to local authorities, leaving the authorities with ongoing responsibilities to fulfil.  Councils also have to balance cost against the important role and value museums bring in delivering education and community engagement programmes.  The key for local authorities looking to reshape their museums to fit today’s realities is to go back to basics, by thinking holistically about the underlying role and purpose of their museums.

Museums need to be flexible in their thinking, taking a more commercial and entrepreneurial approach to boost their income and help sustain the benefits that they deliver.  Overall, the direction of travel in museum operations is clear: a focus on cost efficiencies coupled with a more entrepreneurial and open approach characterised by wider and easier audience access (often via digital technologies), new commercial revenue streams, and rising use of collaboration and partnerships. To realise these revenue and costs opportunities, however, museums will need to develop the right mix of skills.

Alongside these actions to reduce the financial burden of museums within the existing ownership structures, museums have been looking at different delivery models.  One increasingly popular solution is converting to charitable trust status.  At its simplest, switching to trust status means the museum will operate as a charitable company and be registered as a charity with the Charity Commission and HMRC. This isn’t a new option: for example, Sheffield museums moved to trust status in 1998 followed by York museums in 2002.

Converting museum services to a trust isn’t a panacea or one-size fits all solution for all authorities. But in some cases, it represents the best long-term response to the pressures now facing local authority-owned and -managed museums.  A trust structure brings financial pros and cons but the real opportunity lies in the longer-term strategic benefits that a museum trust may be able to capitalise on. This includes having the ability to operate to longer-term planning horizons, to be more responsive to market pressures or opportunities without having to seek local authority approval, and to benefit from external fundraising.

These benefits will only apply if the trust is set up correctly at the outset with the appropriate degree of independence and funding and the right skills mix.  However, these potential pitfalls can be anticipated and avoided and converting to trust status can be an effective catalyst for change.  In communities across the UK, local authority museums make a rich contribution to social culture, heritage and sense of ‘place’. In many cases, trust status may be the best way of ensuring they can continue to play this valuable role.

Julie Clark

Julie Clark | Sport & Leisure Leader
Profile | Email | +44 (0)20 7213 4170

Ian Oakley-Smith

Ian Oakley-Smith | Charities Leader
Profile | Email | +44 (0)20 7212 6023

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