Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:53 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative 5:53 pm, 23rd January 2018

My Lords, I too am very grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate. He asks what steps the Government are going to take in looking at and, hopefully, finding ways forward in a very troubled sector. From that, I exclude the nationals. Everything that has been said about them is absolutely true but there is a very big gap between how the nationals behave, the way they are treated and their resources, and the rest of the sector.

On steps, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said, you cannot expect any more money. Whatever other step may be taken it will not be more money. It seems extremely unlikely that the £844 million, which I think is the figure that Neil Mendoza calculated, will be significantly added to. We need to look at other ways forward. As has been mentioned, there are examples of things being done in the science museum sector or wherever you like to look. But as Mendoza tells us, the diversity is pretty bewildering among the 2,600 institutions mentioned in his excellent review.

My theme is that the DCMS needs to take a much more serious look at the development of policy and consider the sector in much more depth and detail rather than leaving things to find their own level. Perhaps that is a trifle unkind but one of Mendoza’s recommendations politely says that we need a clearer role for DCMS. I do not know how a review could make it clearer that the department needs to do more.

In a sector so large and complex, general rules are scarce. We know that the sector is short of people, and the reason it is short of people is that it is short of money. Here I declare an interest. In 1983 I was lucky enough to be on the Royal Botanic Gardens trust when it was formed. The DCMS may or may not know that there are 200,000 original botanic drawings at Kew—a huge gallery collection. What about access? What about the acquisition of yet further drawings? What about the conservation of those drawings? They are mainly watercolour drawings, which are, as we know, very sensitive.

I am involved in the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, which is, fortunately, endowed. Endowment is a big issue. We have had a catalyst, and there is an interest in endowment, but how much further are we going to take that interest?

The Georgian Theatre in Richmond, north Yorkshire, is highly dependent upon volunteers. In my day, it had a manager and a part-time bookkeeper. For everything else, including the 100 performances we put on each year, the theatre was manned by volunteers. There is a huge issue about volunteering.

Regarding the Bowes Museum—not, unfortunately for my noble friend Lord Kirkham, in Yorkshire but just over the border in County Durham—although Neil Mendoza mentions a 13% drop in core local authority funding over the past few years, the Bowes has suffered a drop of between 50% and 60% from its county core funder.

We are faced with a huge challenge, which basically is: how does this sector keep up with what is going on? The creativity of the nation has been referred to, as has the possibility of there being even more new museums, but what about the existing museums and their ability to keep up, as Mendoza says, with the digital revolution and what is now being called the fourth industrial revolution? It may be that the Ashmole/Hans Sloane model fits only a relatively small number of museums today and that, in filling the gap between the nationals and followers of the Ashmole model, we need a much deeper analysis

At present the DCMS seems to have subcontracted a lot of the thinking to the Arts Council, to the Heritage Lottery Fund and—with some misgivings, I would guess—to local authorities. For me, DCMS needs to get into the fray. Taking refuge in descriptions of culture, whatever that means, does not seem to me to be enough. It may be that the top-down model—come in, keep quiet and learn—is not good enough anymore. What people may really want is to know what they can do in museums. That may come to be as important as what they learn.