How can we save our crumbling regional museums?

Curator Lucy Bamford in the Joseph Wright Gallery at Derby Museum & Art Gallery
Curator Lucy Bamford in the Joseph Wright Gallery at Derby Museum & Art Gallery Credit: Jon Hindmarch/Newton Photography

Crumbling walls, leaking pipes, scant funding: institutions outside London are at crisis point

Think marble pediments topped with statues of worthy figures: artists, poets, scientists. Think gothic towers and imposing staircases leading into palatial galleries devoted to every branch of knowledge under the sun. Now think of loose masonry crashing through ceilings, malfunctioning temperature control systems and sewerage pipes leaking into store rooms full of precious documents and artefacts. Welcome to the world of Britain’s provincial museums and galleries: those priceless institutions, many of them sited in extraordinary historic buildings, which have provided this country’s cultural life-support system for much of the past two centuries, and are now facing the gravest crisis in their collective history.

Cuts of up to 40 per cent in local authority spending on arts and museums over the past 10 years have left many of our greatest museums “limping”, as one director put it to me, rather than striding into the future, barely able to maintain buildings and amenities at viable levels.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the west of England’s largest museum, saw brickwork give way and sewage flood into its collection stores this summer, with the cost of repairs likely to run into the tens of millions. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, that great temple of Pre-Raphaelitism, needs complete rewiring, while Derby Museum continues to lend from its collection of works by its great native painter Joseph Wright of Derby, but is facing a situation where it can’t call in reciprocal loans due to antiquated temperature and humidity control systems. And there are plenty of museums in an even worse state than Derby.

“Many museums are caught in a downward spiral, and as time passes the problems get bigger and bigger,” says Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, which helps museums and galleries buy artworks. “Budgets have been steadily decreasing over the past decade, and building maintenance tends to slip down the order of priorities. You can go on for so long in not carrying out essential repairs, but in the long term it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Following the publication of a letter from Deuchar and two other hefty museum interest groups – the National Museums Directors’ Council and the Museums Association – in a national newspaper last month, the Government announced a new £250 million Culture Investment Fund, with about £100  million earmarked for museums.

But Deuchar says that, welcome as it is, the new funding is nowhere near enough to solve the problem.

“I can think of one or two museums in London that need £100 million right away just to deal with a backlog of urgent repairs,” he says.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery was flooded with sewage Credit: Chris Bahn

However, the museums most at risk don’t tend to be among the big London institutions, which are funded directly by central government. Nor do they tend to be drawn from the relatively elite group of National Portfolio Organisations, funded substantially by the Arts Council, which includes cutting-edge institutions such as Gateshead’s Baltic and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

No, the typical endangered institution is a traditional, uncool, polymathic museum – covering, say, every branch of art, every branch of science or every branch of, well, everything – funded substantially by its hard-pressed local authority. There’s one such place in every city and substantial town in Britain, founded in the 19th century in a spirit of civic pride by some local industrialist or group of worthies, housed in a large, imposing, hard-to-maintain Victorian building modelled on, perhaps, a Florentine Renaissance palace or a Flemish medieval town hall; it’s the sort of place you phone up and get put through to the local swimming baths.

In the popular imagination, these places are crammed to the rafters with fusty Victorian paintings and threadbare stuffed animals. But this image is out of date. Nowadays they are more likely to boast conceptual art, shiny button-pushing science displays, groovy cafés and gift shops.

They also tend to be more visitor-focused than the glitzier institutions, going out of their way to engage children and put on discussions about their exhibits.

But we shouldn’t be snooty about the paintings or the animals either. Victorian painting, as seen in the fantastic Pre-Raphaelite collections at places such as Manchester Art Gallery and Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, is part of Britain’s cultural birthright. As for the dreaded stuffed animals, institutions such as Bristol Museum are consulting the public to find ways to make them relevant to modern audiences.

The roof of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery Credit: Birmingham Museums Trust

If it’s easy to be patronising about the provincial museum, such places – free to enter, as they always have been – are tremendous instruments of self-betterment, a stimulus to the collective imagination in ways that it’s difficult for the metropolitan culture lover (spoilt for choice with globally famous museums) to quite credit.

Growing up in a provincial town myself, the local museum and art gallery seemed a solitary beacon amid a sea of mundanity. Its collections of ancient Celtic weapons, geological relief maps and French impressionist paintings – the latter bequeathed by a pair of local spinster sisters – not only broadened my horizons, but also gave me hope that, if I strived hard enough, I could get away to somewhere bigger and better. And it’s been like that for generations of provincial hopefuls.

Sheffield’s Graves Art Gallery – home to a major collection of modern British art – faces problems typical of many of Britain’s museums. Housed in a handsome suite of rooms above the city’s central library opened in 1934, its elegant skylights continually leak, the building’s steel structure has “major fatigue” and the embedded heating pipes – innovative in their time – leak into walls on which hang some very significant paintings.

“We need the investment not just to repair, but to replace,” says Kim Streets, Museums Sheffield’s chief executive. “But at the moment we’re just ticking over. There’s no disabled access, just a lot of stairs or a tiny lift – under a metre square.

“Our vision is to turn the Graves into a nationally significant destination gallery, but at the moment just getting into the building is a challenge for many people.”

And it’s not as though such places aren’t visited; the current crisis is taking place against a backdrop of ever-rising visitor numbers. The proportion of the British public that visits museums has risen from two fifths to more than half over the past decade, according to a report published in 2017.

Shouldn’t museums be more entrepreneurial and take more responsibility for generating their own funding?

Deuchar says that the opportunities for regional museums to do this are limited.

“The national museums, which are comparatively well-funded anyway, have a very high footfall, which they’ve been very effective in turning into serious levels of income,” he says. “But, when it comes to local museums, the reality on the ground is quite different. The cuts in general funding have left the economies in many towns and cities in a poor state, and this impacts on the amounts museums can raise.

“The only way [they] will be maintained and developed is through serious long-term government investment.”