Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:42 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 5:42 pm, 23rd January 2018

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on securing this debate, which reflects the enormous passion and commitment that he brings to this field of our national life. I share his passion and commitment to an area of our life which is too often rather neglected or marginalised—the role of museums and galleries.

I was very struck by the impact of the City of Culture accolade in Hull in 2017 and the role that museums and galleries played in that. The impact has been enormous in that city. It has raised morale, attracted tourism and brought about a different feel to the place; you can almost touch it when you go there. It is a great thing and culture and the museums and galleries played a very lively part in that process. This experience confirms what has gone before. Do noble Lords remember the old Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign which showcased its wonderful galleries and museums? Liverpool is a former European Capital of Culture and has three nationally recognised museums. This shows what can be done. Culture is not some kind of optional extra or outdoor relief for the intellectual elite; it is a means of deepening understanding and commitment and stimulating innovation and fresh thinking.

I have many favourite museums in this country and overseas, but my particular passion are the museums of Manchester, especially the People’s History Museum, of which I was chairman of trustees for many years. That baton has now been passed to my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon, who unfortunately cannot be here tonight. The People’s History Museum is not just a museum of labour history: its central themes tells the exciting story of the way the right to vote was extended to the population in stages, culminating, 100 years ago this year, in votes for women. The museum is, appropriately, located in Manchester, which was the world’s first industrial city, and which, by the way, was the birthplace of the TUC, which this year also celebrates an anniversary—its 150th. Next year it celebrates too the most violent incident in the fight to widen the franchise: the so-called Peterloo massacre. It is also the repository of the history of co-ops and trade unions, and is the repository of the Labour Party’s archives, which are uniquely bureaucratic; other parties are much more individualistic and their archives are hard to access. So this is a museum with a story to tell which is highly relevant to our modern life in this country.

The museum is run as an independent charity and, like others, it is experiencing the cold winds of austerity. We receive support from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority—I was pleased to see my noble friend Lord Smith here earlier; more than once he has come up trumps for the museum in discussions about money—and the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund play an active role. However, we have lost significant national funding from central government, DCMS and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which tend to palm us off as a regional museum to Greater Manchester or the north-west rather than recognising us as the national museum we really are. The widening of our democracy is of course not a regional matter. I exempt the Minister from these charges as I know that he has an interest in the museum, not least through a distinguished Manchester heritage and his family’s background. His interest is most welcome.

I hope that the museum will be able in due course to regain its national recognition and support, which it had until a few years ago. It deserves it, and repays every penny it gets with its 100,000 visitors, and many more children come through the museum to learn the story of our history and the way in which democracy was entrenched in this country. In an era when there is a lot of fake news, disinterest in the complexities of government and a myopic search for simple solutions, the story the museum tells is one of compelling importance.

No doubt the Minister will enlighten us on the role of DCMS and the recommendations from the Mendoza review urging a joined-up approach from government and the various arms-length bodies. I will be interested to hear what he says about that and the museums action plan. However, I am particularly interested in his and DCMS’s latest thoughts on this marvellous museum, the People’s History Museum.