Can the Victorian spirit save our museums from George Osborne's cuts?

Birmingham museum and art gallery
Visitor to the extensive Pre-Raphaelite collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the largest regional musuem in England Credit: Alamy

For our regional museums and galleries, the picture could hardly be bleaker. The time of threats, warnings and dangers is past – as budget cuts swinge through all areas of society, the decimation has begun.

Bromley Museum and Snibston Museum in Leicester have closed altogether this year, and institutions in Dudley, Durham and Reading are on their last legs. In our larger cities, substantial cuts to opening hours, programmes and facilities have followed the redundancy of curators and staff – without valiant but untrained volunteers many buildings simply could not open.

Everyone in local government expects more bad news from the Chancellor’s autumn statement, making conservative rhetoric about “protecting front-line services” look ever more hollow. Worse is on the way, and museums and galleries must inevitably be at the bottom of everyone’s list of priorities when more basic social provisions are also at risk.

George Osborne is threatening regional museums with more cuts Credit: Paul Grover

Against this sombre background of decline, it is salutary to read Giles Waterfield’s richly absorbing, scholarly and provocative new book The People’s Galleries (published by Yale University Press), a history of art museums and exhibitions in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The picture it paints could hardly be more different to the one presented now.

The 19th-century was an era in which intense civic pride combined with the benefaction of the wealthy and “public subscription” to create palatial institutions that both beautified the landscape of industrial cities and enlightened and entertained their benighted working populations free of charge. Expense was no object; what mattered was the noble aim.

Very few of these museums and galleries were established or funded by aristocratic old money; the majority were built and endowed by the new class of industrialists, ironmasters and mill-owners, most of them Radicals, Evangelicals or Liberals, some of whom had built enormous riches out of dubious commodities such as alcohol or the slave – based commodity of cotton (the brewery-based Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool being a notable example). A number were no doubt motivated by a spirit of ostentation and even megalomania, but these were men – and they were all men – who had made their fortunes out of their birthplaces and wanted to give something back to the greater social good.

Their aesthetics were not particularly sophisticated. With art history in its infancy, there were virtually no educated curators and conservation was not so much a science as a form of First Aid. Rather than collect Old Masters (which many considered suspiciously papist in tone), they tended to prefer genre and history paintings, local landscapes and casts of classical sculpture. But it is significant that an enormous amount was also acquired from contemporary artists – hence the magnificent collections of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian realists in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. Sadly, French Impressionism was considered a step too far.

Manchester Art Gallery and Museum built in 1824 Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In the mid to late 19th-century, these municipal galleries and museums drew huge crowds naively prepared to be uplifted by the genteel influence of what they were told was “improving”. In the interwar era, with the rise of organised spectator sport and the ubiquity of the cinema, their allure faded and attendances plummeted. The collections became dusty relics of a cultural era that was scorned, leaving the buildings themselves to decrepitude – an embarrassing encumbrance on local authorities landed with responsibility for their upkeep.

Over the last fifty years, as Victorianism has been reappraised, the value of these collections has risen again, and over the last twenty-five years, the Arts Council’s strategy of investing in the regions, buttressed by much-needed capital grants from the National Lottery, has allowed them to restore their fabric and reinvent themselves. The happy result is that almost all these buildings are now heated and waterproofed, with collections that are decently catalogued, tended and displayed, providing enjoyment to a wide range of visitors, including tourists and schoolchildren. But they continue to be a drain on scant resources, and with Lottery funds being increasingly diverted elsewhere, where can financial security come from next?

The state (via the Council Tax) is no longer in a position to foot the bill, and any idea of becoming self-sustaining via the profits on a café, shop and charges for temporary exhibitions (or even general admission) looks like pie-in-the-sky.  

What could save these institutions now is a revival of the spirit that gave them birth – civic pride and local money. Yet although the pride is still there – the public remains heroically ready to step into the breach as warders and guides – the money isn’t: it remains extremely hard for any arts organisation outside the magic circle of the M25 to raise money from its own community. Unless that tap can be opened- presumably by means of some encouraging fiscal measure – many of our city centres could lose one of the few features that stops them from morphing into giant shopping malls.