Can museums change to beat the downturn?

If you thought that all museums were suffering similarly in the down turn then think again, some are clearly having a good recession.

It is obvious that museums wholly dependent on public funding are in trouble, whilst those which are independent and derive their income from gate receipts and commercial activities are doing rather well. More importantly it appears that the public have not yet fallen out of love with museums.

Last week at a seminar at Hampton Court I listened to Paul Flatters from Trajectory Partnership describe the likely economic and social trends for the next five years. Both GDP and Consumer spending are likely to return to 2007 levels by 2013-14. The major impact of the recession on consumer habits will see frivolous personal expenditure and the purchase of premium priced products decline. Consumers are making more mindful choices both about the things they buy and how they spend their leisure time. The National Trust’s Time Well Spent campaign has struck a chord and its visitor numbers have increased accordingly.

The market for culture seems healthy and customers (be they visitors and commissioners) seem prepared to pay for meaningful experiences. However, the UK’s huge budget deficit mean that cuts in public funding could range anywhere between 20% and 30% over the next few years. So where should museums focus their energies to ensure resilience? I don’t think there is too much wrong with the product; it is the model which needs renewal. Nick Poole has noted that museums’ have not made the most of the cultural and economic capital they have gleaned over the last fifteen years. Many have not yet won the argument that they are vital generators of well-being for their localities and deserve continued public funding. Moreover during the years of plenty many organisations especially those entirely funded by the public purse did not plan for a future in which they would have to be more self sufficient. 

Here are a few things museums might do:

  • Check out the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Third Sector Insight network. Encouraging organisation to be more business-like in their fundraising it provides key information about trends and forces affecting the voluntary sector. I don’t know of a similar ‘observatory’ for museums.
  •  Be brave about making the case for independence. The rush to trust status for cultural services by many local authorities is mostly done to rather that shaped by museums. In many cases the authority has retained control of all the assets (buildings, collections etc) and TUPE arrangements have hamstrung the ability of organisations to borrow money or re-organise.
  • Take seriously the ideas which both Government and the Conservatives have floated, suggesting public sector workers set up co-operatives. Greenwich Leisure is a great example of a council run leisure service which was re-born as an Industrial and Providential Society. It is providing high quality services with its Borough and has expanded activities right across London.
  • Rather than encourage philanthropic giving, a museum re-invented as a social enterprise should seek out social investors for some services who would be expected to receive some form of return either in cash or in kind.
  • Make the social case for investment by quantifying that which before we only qualified. The framework for Social Return on Investment (SROI) provides organisations with the economic case for activities which have direct social benefits. Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) has just commissioned some SROI evaluation for its popular work-based learning programme.

For years independent museums looked enviously on those organisation cushioned by the safety of public funding. Now the tables are turned; hamstrung by state control, museums with long traditions of contributing to civic pride and social change and are unable to fulfil their potential. The Social Enterprise model sits midway between American philanthropy and European state subsidy. It is business minded, opportunistic but exuding progressive values and a sense of social justice and offers a template for the museums of the future.

Great Moulton Chapel at MEAL - do museums have strong enough faith in themselves to face the future?

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