Fifteen years ago, the then Labour government enabled free entry to Britain’s national museums. The policy came into practice on December 1st, 2001.
Visitor numbers at the museums that once charged have rocketed by over 200% from just 7 million in 2001 to nearly 22 million in 2016. Some of the museums – like the Royal Armouries in London, Leeds and Hampshire have seen visitor numbers rise by over 700%, and Liverpool’s National Museums have seen a rise of over 300%.
Not only did the number of visits to national museums increase, but there was also an increase in the number of visitors to many local museums, which received improved grant assistance to improve the quality of their presentations and to improve the educational experience for millions of school-children.
However, since 2010, the whole government approach to our arts, libraries and museums has gone in to reverse. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, and then Conservative governments under David Cameron and Theresa May, have significantly cut financial support, requiring councils to cut arts and cultural expenditure by £165 million, including nearly £17 million in Yorkshire and Humberside. The government has now promised further cuts each year through to, at least, 2020.
Now, we are beginning to learn of the scale of EU resources which are used to support cultural services and are now at risk. The UK’s Arts and cultural bodies receive millions of pounds funding from the EU every year – including €17 million from the Creative Europe Programme in 2015 alone.
The Government announced in August that it would underwrite money awarded by EU competitive funds before Brexit through to 2020. The Creative Europe Programme is a competitive fund and, on the face of it, comes with the scope of that announcement; however, there was no mention of arts and culture in the statement and the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has been remarkably quiet about the commitment. Even if this resource was protected in the short-term, there is no commitment from 2020.
The free museums policy was bold and has delivered great achievements. It has been hugely successful. But the prospects for our museums and the cultural health of local communities are not good as the government imposes bigger and bigger cuts.