Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 6:15 pm, 23rd January 2018

The partnership framework will help better co-operation around how the national museums work with the wider sector. National and regional museums already work in partnership on many galleries and projects, for example, loans of objects such as the V&A lending the Great Bed of Ware to Ware Museum or the British Museum’s partnership with galleries all over the UK with long-term loans for permanent galleries. This goes both ways. The Science Museum in London recently benefited from the loan of the beautiful Silver Swan automaton from the Bowes Museum. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Rees, approves of that.

These steps highlight a key finding that money is not the only answer. Museums have a responsibility to be creative and innovative, to look at their communities and think hard about their place in them and what they have to contribute and to make themselves relevant in a changing, increasingly online, world and places where people want to spend time and experience the collections.

I now turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, talked about science museums. I thank him for that and for paying tribute to the fantastic work of the Science Museum Group. I could not agree more, and I am delighted that the new Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Tourism, Michael Ellis, will be visiting the National Railway Museum in York later this week to see first hand the planned redevelopment.

The noble Lord, Lord Monks—flattery will get him everywhere, of course—and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned the People’s History Museum. I agree with them on the benefits and interest in the People’s History Museum. It is a marvellous museum. The noble Lord talked about it losing funding. It used to receive £150,000 a year from DCMS in direct grant in aid funding, which was removed, but it successfully applied to become an Arts Council national portfolio organisation and will receive just over double what it previously received annually. However, I concur with the noble Lord’s recommendation to visit that museum.

My noble friend Lord Eccles made some interesting points, particularly about DCMS. We will support museums as they rethink their place in today’s society. The action plan will help put a funding framework around priorities such as how museums work with audiences and help shape places. The Government fund national museums at arm’s length and regional museums through the Arts Council. This means that museums are fiercely and gladly independent, curatorially and operationally. We think it is a major strength of the sector and do not wish to interfere in museums’ practice.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about the operational freedoms pilot. This was set out in a strategic review of government-sponsored museums. We will seek to evaluate the operational freedoms pilot three years after they become permanent in 2018—this year—and will set out our evaluation plans in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees, talked about London-centric national museums. There are 24 branches of national museums outside London, and in 2016-17 the national collection was lent out to more than 1,300 UK venues. We absolutely take his point, but we are working hard to move the benefits of the national museums to a wider audience around the country.

My noble friend Lord Cormack mentioned business rates, which of course are a real problem. The Government are working to revitalise the business rates system, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the fair funding review. We are aware that the sector has some concerns about how the business rates system affects museums. Many museums are charities and enjoy 80% mandatory rates relief. The York Museums Trust Upper Tribunal decision in 2017 was a milestone, and we are working with the Treasury and the VOA to understand the decision and its long-term impact.

The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, talked about ivory sales. The proposals on those include specific exemptions for sales to and between museums. Defra does not intend the proposed ban to impact on the display of items by museums or to prevent museum-to-museum loans where currently allowed.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, reminisced that there was not much going on west of Bristol when he was a bit younger. I can assure the noble Viscount that there is now plenty of culture to be had in the south-west of England: Tate St Ives reopened in autumn 2017; the Mary Rose in Portsmouth is a fantastic attraction; and the 70-strong Cornwall Museums Partnership, working with its local enterprise partnership, goes from strength to strength. I urge him to revisit his youth and capture his Inverness enthusiasm in the south-west.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Viscount talked about school visits and young people. The curriculum fund will support leading cultural and scientific institutions in bringing high-quality materials from our rich cultural and scientific heritage directly into the classroom. It is worth £7.7 million, and the DCMS is working with the Department for Education to engage the relevant stakeholders.

I conclude by talking about national museums working with regional museums. As I mentioned, the national collection was lent out more than 1,300 times, and ACE has provided £3.6 million to regional museums to help them improve their galleries to protect and display borrowed items through the ready to borrow scheme.

The nation’s museums represent a successful, resourceful and creative sector. The Government are focusing on how we can support an environment in which museums can flourish on their own terms, and the steps I have outlined will help to do that. My time is up, and I will write to those noble Lords whose questions I have not yet managed to answer, with apologies.