As director of Community Services, museums and Libraries came under my portfolio of responsibilities. When it comes to managing a service within a shrinking budget there are many similarities. Notably reduced opening hours leading eventually to unpopular closures. The difference was that those running museums always had optimistic proposals for increasing income as away of avoiding painful cuts. These innovative proposals usually involved spending more money in order to attract more visitors or to be more appealing to a generous sponsor. Unfortunately neither I as director or the budget committee had the vision or confidence to back such unfunded plans.
Shrinking budgets are a threat to local authority run museums. 40% of museums have cut their opening hours by a third. Many museums are only open for part of the year. Local authorities have replaced full time staff with part time and seasonal staff and then volunteers. Councils have tried to get " friends of " and local people to take over the management and running of museums with limited success. In some cases they have tried to give away their exhibits and collections to other museums, in others buildings have been mothballed. The service is in crisis.
Museums present a unique set of challenges to local authorities. The buildings are often old and expensive to maintain. They have some very valuable and important items in their collections but also a massive amount of stuff that is of interest only to the specialist. Often items were donated on the understanding they were looked after and displayed by the council for the benefit of local people, so they can't be sold to raise funds for much needed repairs. Local Museums are like local libraries local people don't want to see them close but don't actually visit them. Visitor numbers vary but many local museums are over reliant on local schools.
To attract teachers and pupils exhibits reflect the national curriculum hence some rather,"home made" Anderson shelters and First World War trenches along side madams Tussards type wax work Roman soldiers. School trips not only boost the numbers of visitors but increase the sales in the gift shop and the takings in the cafe providing much needed income. This is whoever small change, to survive museums need a generous sponsor or a large grant from the lottery fund and competition is fierce. Funders don't want to fix the roof, upgrade the toilet facilities or replace the heating system they want to fund something exciting and new like an extension or exhibit that will capture the public's imagination or provide a permanent home for a valuable artefact that was in danger of being sold to the Americans.
Local authority managers of museum services must come up with proposals to make their fair share of savings along side other council services like libraries, swimming pools, social services, road repairs and refuse collection. The budget committee is not impressed by proposals that rely on optimistic income projections and unfunded plans, however innovative, which is why they so often go for reduced opening hours.
Blair McPherson former Director of Community services www.blairmcpherson.co.uk