Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Kirkham Lord Kirkham Conservative 5:28 pm, 23rd January 2018

Good news, my Lords: regardless of economic pressures, we have the best museums and galleries in the world. I say that not in a spirit of nostalgia; it is backed by hard facts. Mendoza tells us that the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate Modern are among the top 10 most-visited museums and galleries in the world. All the top 10 most-visited tourist attractions in the UK are English museums.

We are doing a great job of promoting Britain to a global audience and our own people—helped no doubt by our free entry policy. Over half the UK population visited museums last year, and the number of adult visitors has grown by around 25% over the past decade. We should congratulate the talented directors, hard-working staff and dedicated volunteers for the reputation they have won as simply the best in the world.

So what is the problem? Why this debate? As in any great success story, complacency is a danger. Funding is more pressing, as we have already heard, having already fallen overall some 13% in real terms over the past decade. Museums and galleries have certainly worked harder and smarter to generate additional sponsorship and income to mitigate that shortfall. While I applaud their efforts to stand on their own two feet, continuing government support is absolutely crucial.

When I said earlier that all top 10 tourist attractions in the UK were English museums, I omitted to say that they were all in London. When Disraeli wrote of the two nations in 1845, he was referring, of course, to the rich and the poor. As a Yorkshireman, I feel that the two nations in the England of 2018 are London and the rest of the country. Does it matter if a dusty old Victorian museum in some post-industrial northern town closes its doors? Yes, it matters hugely, because museums and galleries play a vital role in the economies and communities of every part of England. They house around 200 million objects, from Roman remains to railway locomotives, sculpture and paintings to pencils to lawn-mowers, ships, aircraft and military vehicles to sporting triumphs and literary history. Each forms part of our cultural lives.

Our calling card to the wider world has long been our creativity. We have given the world some of its greatest architects, designers, engineers, musicians, painters, sculptors and writers. We have pioneered most of its greatest innovations, from the steam railway to the jet engine and the world wide web, and invented most of its favourite sports. All these achievements are celebrated in our museums and galleries. Far from acquiescing in closures or shortened hours, we should look to open more museums, expanding public interest in new genres from film and television to technology and design.

Museums are community hubs that promote social cohesion. They are important employers, providing around 33,000 jobs and involving thousands of volunteers. They can help to deliver regeneration, like the striking Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. They also provide practical learning experiences that stimulate interest, and they are often far more impactful than any classroom or books. With art, drama and music all diminished in our schools, museums and galleries play an increasingly important role in the education of our children, helping to spark their imaginations and their creative powers. In the post-Brexit world, we are going to need every scintilla and vestige of genius that we can create if we are to continue leading the world in thought, creativity and innovation. The vital role that our museums and galleries can play in delivering this holistic education is, to my mind, absolutely unchallengeable.

Our museums and galleries also make a major contribution to the economy, because they are powerful magnets for tourism. In my own county of Yorkshire alone we are proud to have the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, museum of the year 2017; the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, museum of the year 2014; the National Railway Museum at York; the Brontë Parsonage Museum, celebrating all that those extraordinary sisters gave to world literature; the Royal Armouries in Leeds; the National Coal Mining Museum; the National Media Museum in Bradford; and the Jorvik Viking Centre, which the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, mentioned earlier. I could go on and on.

I am not saying that no museum or gallery should ever be allowed to fail. Like all businesses, they need to remain relevant, meaningful and entrepreneurial. What I am saying is that both central and local government have an essential role to play in nurturing these great institutions, and that money that they put in should not be a viewed as a subsidy. It is an investment that pays demonstrable returns—social, educational and economic.

The 110-page report that Neil Mendoza compiled for the DCMS and published last November sets out six pages of detailed recommendations to the department, the Arts Council of England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic England, local authorities and museums themselves, urging a more joined-up strategic approach that will make the best use of the limited funds available and ensure that museums operate as effective cultural enterprises, clearly understanding their purpose, their audience and their expertise. Careful study and full implementation of these recommendations will, I am sure, make a great, positive difference to the future of all our museums. Above all, though, we need to ensure recognition at the top—in Whitehall and town halls throughout the country—that museums and galleries are not a luxury. They are central to our history, heritage and identity; to social cohesion and education; to travel, tourism and hospitality; to our economic success and standing in the world as a whole. What is more important than all of that?