What’s the future for Local Authority museums? As financial pressures grow, it’s time to think outside the box

11 May 2017

There are around 700 local authority museums in England[1] with the majority managed directly by local councils and largely funded by state subsidy. With continued pressure on funding, local authority spending on non-statutory services such as museums, is inevitably coming under the microscope as it competes with higher funding priorities like education, social care and emergency services.  However, some of the more forward-thinking councils are using this as an opportunity to review how best to manage the museums under their control.
Given this context, we’re creating a series of three blogs looking at the options for council-managed museums.


So, what’s the situation? According to research published in 2016 by the Museums Association[2] based on its Cuts Survey 2015, local authority museums were being hit hardest by the savings outlined in the November 2015 Spending Review.  Some local authorities are already resorting to selling collections or closing down all or part of some museum services.

To address these concerns, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)[3] is carrying out a review of English museums, with a view to reporting this summer on how the sector operates, the challenges it faces, and how it can best be supported by government. In fulfilling this brief, the review is examining various museum operating models and potential changes to revenue streams.

However, 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 and even buildings have been bequeathed as gifts to local authorities by companies or wealthy individuals, 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. And because of that value, they’re often an emotive subject, with any suggestion of cutbacks, closure or higher ticket prices raising the risk of local opposition.

A further consideration is that museums differ dramatically from one another. Larger, higher-profile museums can act as a magnet for tourists and generate significant benefits for the wider local economy, together with commercial opportunities and – in some cases – support for the conservation of historic buildings. In contrast, some smaller museums are more specialist in nature thereby appealing to a narrower audience.

So, what’s to be done? 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. Key questions to ask include:


Museums need to be flexible in their thinking – indeed “doing nothing” may be the best option but given the public sector funding climate is unlikely to radically improve in the short term, management teams need to at least have the appetite to explore options for new approaches, organizational models and ways of working.
This isn’t always easy and change can be unsettling. Every museum is unique in some way and this naturally offers councils an excuse to simply focus inwards and carry on “as is”. However, adopting an introspective approach could put Arts Council accreditations at risk if quality and visitors start to decline.

What might these options involve? In the second blog in this series, we’ll examine how taking a more commercial and entrepreneurial perspective can help sustain the benefits that museums deliver, while reducing the financial burden they impose on hard-pressed budgets. Watch this space.


[1] Source: https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/jul/10/who-runs-local-museums-surviving-funding-crisis

[2] Source: https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/funding-cuts/fighting-the-cuts

[3] Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/550519/Museums_ReviewTermsofReference-versionforweb.pdf


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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