Museum funding slashed: Essential cuts or cultural vandalism?

By Jonathan Brown

Cultural vandalism isn’t a phrase I’ve come across too many times before but on first listen it sounds more like rebellious childhood graffiti than harsh governmental cuts.

But critics argue culture in Manchester could be seriously defaced after non-national museums in the city were told that their government funding will be slashed yearly until its removal in 2014-15.

So what does the future hold for the People’s History Museum (PHM), in Spinningfields, as it looks set to lose all of its £170,000 of annual DCMS funding?

These cuts come partly from how museums are classified as national by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which relies on whether they were created by the government, not the importance of their collections.

The cuts, which total around 15% of the PHM’s total income, come in spite of the PHM documenting the nationally significant history of democracy and working people in Britain over the last 200 years.

Katy Archer, director of the PHM, said: “Cultural organisations are seen as soft targets and they’re not valued as much.

“But when you’re looking at cuts to education and health instead, it’s difficult for us to make an argument.

“With any financial crisis you need to be confident and passionate but equally you need to be aware of the bigger picture. We’re optimistic but we’re also aware that it’s not going to be an easy ride.”

However, this funding rollercoaster comes after a partly government funded high point in which the PHM received a £12.5million facelift, finally reopening in February this year.

This came before October’s Comprehensive Spending Review revealed that the DCMS itself is set for a 24% budget cut.

Since starting its collection in the 1960s the PHM has popped up in different forms with its latest incarnation featuring a futuristic weathering steel facade that looks like a rusting beehive.

“We were fortunate that we got the money for redevelopment when we did, it wouldn’t happen now on that scale,” explained Ms Archer.

“I think it is a risk not to invest regularly in us as Manchester’s museums do excellent work as a consortium but I appreciate the need to think differently.”

Furious campaigners have since grouped together to sign an open letter addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, with academics, politicians and union members collectively condemning the PHM cuts.

“At a time when we face huge cuts in the welfare state, the lessons of history that are represented by the PHM are important for all of us,” argued Martin Empson, of the Manchester Right to Work campaign.

“At a time when education is also under attack, institutions like museums have an important role.”

Unionists have taken particular offence to the PHM cuts, as the museum depicts 19thcentury trade unionism and houses the world’s largest collection of trade union and other banners.

Geoff Brown, secretary of Manchester Trades Union Council, added: “The shift in government priorities is not only unnecessary but a huge gamble.

“The idea that the free market will create an unprecedented number of jobs to replace the million that will go if the Comprehensive Spending Review is implemented is a massive risk.”

Private sector sponsors like The Co-operative and Unison already back the PHM but there are concerns that relying on such support can’t sustain Manchester’s museums long term.

Furthermore the idea that the local government spending review could dent the PHM’s finances even more is leaving a cloud of uncertainty over its future.

But Councillor Mike Amesbury, Manchester City Council’s Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, refutes such claims.

“We have no plans that serve to cut PHM funding although I believe the DCMS cuts are an unprecedented knock on arts and culture in Manchester,” he said.

“It’s nothing but short sighted cultural vandalism. We will now work hard behind the scenes with cultural partnerships and look at shared services and backroom operations.”

He added that sponsorships will fall short of replacing government funding.

Cutbacks have also brought fears that admission fees could be introduced at the museums for the first time, despite the Conservative election promise to safeguard against them.

Ms Archer admitted: “It probably will be a conversation that will come up before 2015 depending on the local government budget announcement.”

In fact the cuts will also affect national museums with their DCMS funding being reduced by 15%, which the department argues will not hamper the protection of free entry.

And the man behind the DCMS statement, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, has defended the museum cuts.

He said: “While we have had to make a number of very difficult decisions, we have acted in a decisive way that maximises the resources going to the front line.

“Our priority now is to get on with delivering the services the public want over the period of this parliament and beyond.”

Manchester’s National Football Museum (NFM) and Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) along with the PHM form three of the eight non-national UK museums to have their DCMS funding removed.

Tony Hill, director of the MOSI, said: “We have been aware for some time of the need to diversify our funding. The MOSI now has a separate fundraising department to develop new funding streams.”

The NFM risks losing its funding after Manchester City Council pledged £8million for its relocation to Manchester’s Urbis exhibition centre, along with £2million to be invested in it annually.

“While we would be very disappointed if our DCMS funding was cut, it would not affect the creation and future successful operation of the new museum,” added NFM director, Kevin Moore.

So the future of the PHM is very much in the hands of sponsors and potential suitors, but we are yet to see whether that is enough to sustain it.

Scaling down and cutting back may have to be considered to maintain it, but in fighting for their rights, protestors could yet win back funding like those depicted in the PHM’s exhibits once did.

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