Mendoza's Museums Action Plan - but where's the cash?

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Everyone from the Museums Association to the Art Fund is hugging themselves with glee at the announcement by DCMS of its Museums Action Plan for England.

“Pleased to see the recognition of the opportunities that we identified for… placemaking, wellbeing and spaces for debate” approved the former. "It captures the breadth, dynamism and ingenuity of what museums are doing across the country” gushed the latter. But what actually is it?

It’s a review, which is something less than a report, something more than a comment, and its author is Neil Mendoza, a non-executive director of DCMS and the co-founder of Forward Publishing among many other entrepreneurial things. Not a museum specialist. Yet his review gives instructions to those museums and the agencies that fund them – the Arts Council, the HLF and the DCMS to be exact - on what needs to happen in this “world class museum sector”.

The Mendoza Review wants museums to adapt “to the modern funding environment”; to do better with the collections so that the public get better access; to acknowledge the new diversity in the audience; to ensure that museums “contribute to local priorities”; to diversify the workforce; to get digital in their exhibition-making; and to work internationally. The action is to be by the museums, not local or national government, and there's no mention of the needs of the disabled.

Last night three words from actual museum folk greeted this shopping list: “Where’s the money?” Mendoza is right, our museums have done fantastically well in moving forward by mastering new skills, creating partnerships, learning new earning techniques and finding sources. But nevertheless local and regional museums are closing – in 2015, the last full year of record, one in five museums at least partly closed, not because they failed to work internationally or be aware of the modern funding environment, but because they lost their subsidy: Vernon Park Museum, 2013; Etruria Industrial Museum, 2012; Quilt Museum, York, 2015; Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, 2016; Lackham Museum of Agricultural and Rural Life, 2012, and on it goes - according to the Museums Association, since 2010 64 museums have closed across the UK nearly all because of cuts in public funding. Some councils have even flogged off things from their museums’ collections to supplement the shortfall in the central government subvention.

So is the Museums Action Plan just a bromide? For the last five years and more this column and AI magazine have been calling for a physical, funded, national network for museum support, something positively robust, but there’s nothing of that sort behind this “action” plan. National museums and galleries have been told they should take on more of a pastoral role, lending objects, advice and even giving cash for local and regional projects, but there’s no statutory machinery to make it happen, any more than there is behind this plan.

In 2001 Chris Smith brought in free admission for national museums – controversially, many directors had tried to resist it – which spread voluntarily to many regional institutions. Museums are being used again as the educational tools they were set up to be, and the public has become used to enjoying family days at the museum which they never did when they had pay to get in.

So successful did the policy turn out to be that all parties’ arts manifestos since have pledged to maintain it. Politicians are not mentioning it now, and there’s a growing fear that the new layer of austerity is going to allow the re-imposition of entry fees and the advent of a new ice age in casual education. Is this the disguised prelude?

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