Guest Blog – The Journey from Dependence to Independence

A special guest blog by Tony Butler, Director of Derby Museums Trust and member of the Dependence to Independence event organising group.

On 1st June, around thirty museum directors gathered at Derby Silk Mill to discuss the future of one of the fastest growing parts of the museum sector – independent museums that have strong financial ties to their local authorities, at an event organised jointly by NMDC and AIM

Although all independent in governance, around two thirds of the museums receive 50% or more of their income from their local authorities. In principle some are on the journey to reduce this to a point as close to financial independence as possible. But for others financial independence is not the goal and they see their relationship with their local authority not as ‘dependence’ but as a positive and productive partnership.

Nevertheless for all museums the amount of local authority funding they receive is likely to reduce. Michael Day, Chief Executive of Historic Royal Palaces, gave the keynote speech. He suggested that the implication of the current government’s spending plans is that by 2019/20 the amount of local government funding for museums will be reduced to pockets here and there. The future appears stark for ‘dependent’ organisations as no other substantial source of public or philanthropic funding likely to be able to replace these reductions.

The sharpest questions is how should museums adapt in a very short space of time so that they can be purposeful and valuable to their visitors

Some spoke of ‘right-sizing’ their organisations, suggesting that the trend of continual capital development and development of a far broader range of cultural and social activity had led to overstretch in the sector. Right-sizing could mean closing branches or scaling back on activities which benefit the few, not the many.

Almost inevitably (when you get a load of independent museum directors in a room!) the subject turned to whether more of those museums present might introduce charges for admission in the future.

The subject of admission charges is totemic. Not just for those free National Museums who have seen their visitor numbers skyrocket since 2000, but also for Independent museums who have become hugely successful businesses and had great impact on their communities as charging institutions. There were different philosophical views in the room of the benefits (beyond the purely financial) of charging and of providing free admission. Some saw charging as a positive step. It demonstrates that what a museum provides is of value and valued by its visitors and the public and is a spur to innovation and the provision of improved experiences.

But for some other museums free admission is a central part of how they deliver their purpose. There was a thoughtful debate about the civic role of museums particularly in large cities which put huge stall in the freedom of access for all regardless of circumstances.

There was recognition that the purpose and context of each museum, together with its political and financial considerations and the viability of introducing charges (which would be different for say a city museum compared to an open air museum that is part of the visitor attraction market), would determine the right response for each museum. There was agreement amongst many that the financial circumstances now facing museums will mean that positions on charging for entry, or not, will need to be re-examined: museums need to be ready to consider all options and think innovatively about achieving the goals of the museum for its audiences, in these difficult times. One museum said their Trustees had committed to examining whether they should retain their current approach of free admission on an annual basis – an example many other museums might wish to follow.

I have run both charging and non-charging museums, civic institution and rural visitor attraction. The context of each museum is different, my own hunch is that introducing charging to my current museum would cripple its purpose and standing in the city in a way that removing charging from my last institution would have severely damaged its business.

Although there are differences over efficacy of charging many common themes emerged

  • The wide-reaching benefits when a museum can set its own purpose and long-term direction, rather than being a small part of a much larger organisation like a Council, whose priorities may not be very relevant to a museum.
  • The need to address concerns, sometimes irrational, that Councils may have about risk to public money in ‘handing it over’ to a Trust, or worries about ‘privatisation’ of public assets.
  • The need to constantly work hard at ensuring the Council sees the real value that museums add to their community.
  • A culture of enterprise was easier to develop in a Trust and brought benefits. By focusing on their organisations as businesses and helping staff see this positively, many museums had found they could get more value from their existing assets and cost base.

Above all, what stood out was the passion and commitment of the leaders in the room, to ensure their museums respond to the very challenging changes to funding which almost all are experiencing, whilst still delighting their visitors and meeting the trust and expectations of the wider public. The vast majority indicated they were optimistic for their organisation’s future, even given the challenge, perhaps because independent museums have a long track-record of achieving what seems impossible through their independent spirit of resourcefulness, entrepreneurialism, passion and enthusiasm.

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