Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat 5:15 pm, 23rd January 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for introducing this all-important debate. Museums and galleries in the UK are available for all levels of interest, knowledge and understanding; indeed, they provide many of us with deeply personal and lifelong memories. I will never forget my visit to the Jorvik centre in York in my early 20s and the sense of magic as I held in my hand something amazing—Viking poo. It was in a block of acrylic, of course, but that was a magical moment that put me in touch with history none the less. The Jorvik centre was one of the first places in the UK to start to make the experience of the past come alive in such a creative way. Nor will I forget seeing my mum, an evacuee in the Second World War, sharing with her grandson the experience of the brilliant exhibition on evacuees at the Imperial War Museum.

The wide variety of museums and galleries that we have today will help to ensure that we foster a future generation who appreciate art, culture and our shared history. Indeed, we all have a responsibility to ensure that museums and galleries work hard to increase inclusivity and shine a light on those who have traditionally been left out of our story—Mary Seacole is an example. The noble Baroness referred to the running of dementia programmes in many museums and galleries now, and that is another example.

That 55% of the English public live within walking distance of at least one museum is a cause for much pride. That over half the adult population visit museums —up from around two in five a decade ago, according to the Mendoza Review—is encouraging. The Mendoza report also makes clear just how much value for money local museums provide for a very small share, as the noble Lord referenced, of the national expenditure. Museums in England generate £2.64 billion in income, including trading income, fundraising donations and grants in aid, and £1.54 billion in economic output, according to the Arts Council England report The Economic Impact of Museums in England in 2015. That is why, now more than ever, we need to ensure their future sustainability and stability.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, also referred to, there is an urgent need for central government to look at the funding issue. Indeed, if we are to believe that artificial intelligence will replace much of what we define as work today—and as a member of the Artificial Intelligence Select Committee, I have seen plenty of evidence so far to suggest that that is the case—it is all-important that we ensure that future generations have free access to creativity and culture that sets them apart from intelligent machines.

So it is worrying to learn that there is a decline in school visits, in part due to changes in the national curriculum. As a governor of an inner-city school, I have seen the value that is added when children visit areas of cultural interest. In particular, I have seen the value that is added for children who are receiving the pupil premium allowance. That leaves me in no doubt of the value. That is why I believe the curriculum must ensure that children develop with an understanding of the value of creativity.

In my view, the advent of artificial intelligence will need a highly creative and curious future generation. So we on these Benches recognise that to support the future success of the arts in Britain we must ensure that the right funding structures and regulatory environment are in place to encourage investment. But that investment must never compromise their independence. In other words, public galleries—galleries and museums that are free—should not be expected to rely solely on private income. The potential, or the danger, of our past being explained by the highest bidder, or by the whims of the latest fashion, may then become too great.

Adapting to today’s funding environment is the most important challenge facing museums today. Over the past 10 years, as we have heard, overall funding has reduced by 13% in real terms, part of that as a result of the cuts to local government. Museums and galleries are, sadly, likely to take the hit in an austerity period, regardless of the value that they add locally and culturally.

That is why we in the Liberal Democrats in particular support the creation of creative enterprise zones, zones that are set up to grow and regenerate cultural output across the UK, to grow jobs in the sector, to grow future generations armed for whatever uncertainty lies ahead with a rich and vibrant knowledge of the past from their local and national museums.