Last week I went to the V & A to see the All this Belongs to You. It is a series of interventions by artists and the museum examining the role of public institutions in contemporary life and what it means to be responsible for a national collection. This is an opportune exhibition, opened in the run up to the 2015 General Election and at a time when many feel that a decade of austerity will undermine the notion of a free and open public realm.
Apart from the bold assertion that All this Belongs to You in the entrance hall, I found many of the other installations quite hard to locate, hidden in far away galleries with the guidance leaflet difficult to follow. What should have been a call to arms seemed flat in comparison to the razzamatazz surrounding the concurrent Alexander McQueen show. That said, the programme of events and talks over the next few months looks fascinating and provocative.
In the regions of the UK, large public institutions are at risk. Many our great civic museums, supported by local authorities have seen their funding reduced by between 25% and 50% during 2012-2016. Some local authorities talk about their budgets going off a cliff with the possibility of funding for discretionary services ceasing completely by 2017. Arts Council England are shortly to publish a review of the future of local authority funding for culture, it will make sober reading. Some civic museums many of which are nearly 200 years in the making could shrink considerably and conceivably disappear.
Although the avalanche of funding cuts may be hard to avoid, museums could help themselves by being more vocal as to their value in the civic realm. The decisions politicians make are coloured not only by economic matters but also how they play with the public. On the one hand, museums are far more socially active than in the past. A more progressive profession and benign political climate has meant that a commitment to learning, participation and community engagement is central to most museums. The Museums Association clarion call, Museums Change Lives places social justice at the soul of museums.
Paradoxically the instrumentalisation of cultural policy and activity over the last 20 years has not meant that museums have fulfilled their full potential as independent rallying points for civil society. In a previous blog I noted that for civic institutions to have greater impact in the public realm they need to behave more like civil society organisations. They should allow for the rhythm of local life. Communities unite, divide, show liking or indifference to each other. Our cities have very fluid communities, there is far more muddle than is convenient for media.
Although fifteen years of instrumentalist funding has had much social impact it has meant that many organisation became proxy state delivery agencies. I’ve witnessed this as director of the ‘independent’ Museum of East Anglian Life. I was encouraged to bid for Local Authority contracts to deliver services for learning disabled adults (as a means to offset a reduction in public funding).
Long term trends show that museum visits are increasing, survey after survey shows that museums are trusted by the public. I think that this is at risk if museums do not reassert their civic contract to the public. They should assume a commitment to social justice but from a position of independence. In 2013 The Garden Museum in Lambeth supported residents of the Heygate Estate which had been slated for gentrification by Lambeth Council. They should reassert their ethics and be prepared to debate in public the value of a civic collection in all senses. If not, there is no counter to the reductionist economic case made by some elected members to sell cultural assets to plug budget shortfalls. All this Belongs to You applies equally to local as it does to National collections.
In the next blog I’ll describe some of our work in Derby Museums to reassert our civic contract, by being more open, democratic and responsive to the public