Speech to the Museums Association Conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


Thank you for inviting me back to speak at the Museums Association Conference.  I’m delighted to be here.  The Conference always clashes with the Conservative party conference, and to make things even more challenging, the organisers of this conference always seem to site it as far away as possible. But wild horses, and geographical obstacles, wouldn’t have kept me away today. You see, I love museums and I love culture.  And I don’t want to miss the chance I have while I am in this job to share my thoughts and ideas with you. 

It’s always a tradition for any Minister, I suspect, to start with the good news, and I am no exception.  In the last year, we have seen a number of major new museums open across the country.  I was lucky enough to attend the opening of the new Museum of Liverpool, which is the largest newly-built national museum in the UK for over a hundred years.  David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary opened in Margate in April.  Thousands of people queued to be the first to visit the new gallery, and it exceeded its annual target for visitors within three months.  In Bristol the ‘M Shed’ museum opened in June welcoming thousands of local visitors to find out more about the history of their city.  It’s a wonderful space which I visited a few days before it opened. The Hepworth Wakefield which also opened this year is the largest art gallery outside London.  It has been labelled by the Independent as “one of the finest contemporary art museums in Europe. The Holburne Museum in Bath also has a new extension, which I visited with its local MP, Don Foster.  Even in a city suffused with culture, this new extension has made a significant impact. And in Edinburgh in August, I saw how the new National Museum of Scotland has been transformed, receiving 200,000 visitors in its first two weeks of opening.

That these brand new museums and extensions have opened in the space of one year, demonstrates a museums sector that is thriving and vibrant.  I doubt there are many countries in the world that could tell a story like this.

There are similar good news stories across our national museums. I went to the National Maritime Museum in the summer for the opening of the Sammy Ofer wing, the biggest development in the museum’s history. Plans to extend Tate Modern and the British Museum remain on track. The V&A has announced that Amanda Levete is to realise their new extension, and they continue with their plans for Dundee and Blackpool. Visitor numbers to national museums remain at an all-time high - last year was the eighth and most successful year of free admission at the national museums. And once again, last year the British Museum topped the table for visits to Britain’s Leading Visitor Attractions. There were nearly 19 million visits to Renaissance funded museums last year - a huge increase of 68% since the start of the programme in 2002. The public response proves that people remain passionate about museums and that museums remain a vibrant and thriving part of our national life.

Partnerships between national and regional museums are getting even stronger. Tate, in partnership with the Scottish Government and the Art Fund, is showcasing the ‘Artist Rooms’ - the largest gift of international contemporary art to the nation - at museums and galleries across the UK. The exhibition partnership between the Laing Art Gallery and Millennium Galleries and the Tate has meant that the John Martin exhibition has been planned and shown in Newcastle and Sheffield before going to Tate Britain. The British Museum’s current tour of the ‘Pharaoh: King of Egypt’ exhibition has just finished at the Great North Museum and will soon open at the Dorset County Museum.  It has become a blockbuster tour - and has allowed over one hundred objects which have never been seen before outside London to be seen at museums around the country.  The V&A also boasts 300,000 visits a year to its touring exhibitions - allowing a huge number of people all across the country to see the V&A’s collection outside of its South Kensington home.

A new and exciting development this year is the new museum at Chatham Historic Dockyard - this £13m project has seen the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum and Chatham working together to open a national centre for maritime collections.  I know there are plans to boost all this regional work even more in the context of some national events - the Imperial War Museum has launched the First World War Centenary Partnership which will bring together museums and other partners to share resources and complement each other’s work to commemorate the First World War.

The Cultural Olympiad also brings opportunities to share expertise and collections - for example the British Museum is working with the Stories of the World project in Yorkshire to share curatorial and conservation expertise, sending curators into museum stores across the region to uncover treasures in their collections which were previously overlooked. 

We must also not forget that there are some very positive current stories about regional museums: Colchester’s ‘Firstsite’ contemporary art gallery opened in its brand new £28million home only last week with 3000 visitors on its first day.  We also look forward, later this year, to the opening of the new Jerwood Gallery - a major new cultural venue for in Hastings - generously supported by the Jerwood Foundation.

Many of the examples I cited of new museums are of course the culmination of projects that have been in gestation for up to a decade.  The question we have to ask ourselves is whether this is the peak, and is it all downhill from here.  I absolutely do not believe that this is the case.  I think there is a huge amount to be optimistic about. In the spending review, the national museums were protected with a 15% reduction in funding.  This has allowed national museums to maintain free admission to the permanent collections and to protect their frontline services whilst caring for their collections.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has seen its funds increase from £206 million a year in 2009/10 to £224 million a year in 2010/11.  And we are expecting this to increase to over £300 million a year by 2012/13. Given that a third of its funding goes to museums, this is very good news for the sector. We were also able to commit to Renaissance in the Regions for this spending period and protect it with a 15% reduction over the four year period.  This programme will invest £178m over the spending period. 

The applications for the Renaissance Major Grants programme opened last week - for the first time, this will be an open application process which will allow £20m a year to go to a new mix of museums across the country.  This is just one of the four key strands of the new Renaissance programme. The other strands are:

  1. the national programmes that support museum standard

  2. the important Accreditation and Designation schemes,  V&A Purchase Grant and PRISM grant schemes that do so much to support our collections, and of course, initiatives that keep the sector vibrant and exciting for visitors, such as Kids in Museums and Museums at Night;

  3. The new strategic support fund to target development areas that are not addressed by the Major Grants programme;

  4. And a new museum development fund to provide professional support, advice and guidance to all other museums.

The Arts Council now have responsibility for developing and managing Renaissance.  Alongside their plans for the programme, they have also published “Culture, knowledge and understanding: great museums and libraries for everyone”.

This sets out how they see their role for museums and libraries in the context of their 5 strategic goals - the first being that excellence is thriving and celebrated in museums and libraries, something I wholeheartedly support.  The staff at the Arts Council have worked incredibly hard to meet their new challenges with passion, commitment and determination, and I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to them for all they have done. 

The merger of the MLA’s responsibilities with the Arts Council is, I believe, a great opportunity for you. Having a ‘one stop shop’ for museums and the performing arts will enable much closer collaboration across different parts of the cultural world. It will also enable simpler conversations to take place between government, local authorities and cultural organisations. 

I recently noted with interest a Government document which called for “particularly fruitful instance of cooperation between libraries and local art galleries and museums” where museums and art galleries loaned and maintained pictures in libraries, and in return the libraries provided booklists and book displays to illustrate special exhibitions.  Where did this innovative idea come from?  This article was in the Department for Education’s ‘Standards for Public Library Services’, published in 1961. So, greater collaboration across different sectors has been talked about for 50 years.  With luck, we will see much more of it now that the Arts Council is home to all these different elements. 

Before I move on, I also want to mention another important investment - the DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. I warmly welcome Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation, who is here in the audience. 

Today, Paul and I are celebrating the partnership between the Wolfson Foundation and the Department by publishing a record of eight years of support for display, interpretation and public access to museums and galleries throughout England.  I was delighted that we were also able to secure the future of this Fund in this spending period. This 8 million pound Fund is an excellent example of what can be achieved when public funds are matched with private philanthropy.   I am very grateful to the generosity of the Wolfson Foundation for their long-standing support and commitment to our museums and galleries through this programme.

There is a lot to be positive about, but I am not complacent. The current economic climate has meant that local authorities, like central Government, face some very tough choices. The Museums Association’s recent Survey demonstrates where the impact is being felt - in staffing levels, opening hours and events. These are enormous challenges which are not easily overcome. This survey also showed, however, that many local authorities are still maintaining museum services.  There is a lesson here.  It is vital that museum leaders - and I know many do this - spend time building strong links with their councils during the good times, so they can demonstrate their value during the bad times. 

While a local museum is important in its own right, councillors should also be aware of the other opportunities you offer across the range of a council’s responsibilities.  The conversation with local authorities needs to be as wide-ranging as possible.

As you will know, we have a renewed emphasis on philanthropy.  The Chancellor has already announced changes to inheritance tax that should help with fundraising - as long as your museum has an effective legacy giving programme - and I am delighted that we will be establishing a new scheme to promote lifetime giving. 

I pay credit to Sir Nicholas Goodison and others who have long made the case for such a scheme as a means to boost philanthropy, support acquisitions and protect our national heritage.  My Department, together with the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund, have earmarked £100 million for the Catalyst programme, which will lever in at least that much again from private donors.   Every museum in the country, without exception, can strengthen its performance in fundraising, but this will require strong leadership and more collaboration. 

I know the digital agenda will be debated here in seminars over the next two days.  Technology is transforming the cultural landscape.  For more and more people, their smart phone or tablet is becoming their digital identity.  Artfindr, who are speaking here tomorrow, are showing the way in which collections can not only be put on-line, but also provide an interactive experience for the user which will encourage museum visits.  Using a technology like Artfindr allows you to reach out in other ways - for example by inviting schools to curate their own exhibitions.

More and more digital innovation is taking place.  Tate and Vodafone have an exciting new partnership to develop online and mobile technologies for the Tate’s galleries and website.  The ‘Tate’s Debates’ have enabled the Tate to tap into its online communities to find out how they want to use the collections, so that it can develop innovative ways to use mobiles and apps within the galleries.

Another impressive use of the App is The Museum of London’s ‘Street Museum’ App which allows people to pull out objects from the collection onto their phone as they walk through the streets of London.

But the museum sector demonstrates wonderfully that innovation is not limited to the large national organisations. For example, thousands of small and large museums across the country are already participating in the BBC and Public Catalogue Foundation’s ‘Your Paintings’ website.  This website aims to be able to show the UK’s entire national collection of oil paintings online by 2012, and give details on the stories behind the paintings and where people can see them for real.

I know that using digital technology requires some risk taking - a natural element of innovation - but I think with the museum sector’s appetite for digital technology and the Arts Council’s support, this is an area where museums could really benefit from and contribute to the wider digital economy.  That’s why I am delighted that the Arts Council is working with NESTA to create a digital technology fund to fund digital innovation - half a million this year, but a total of £20 million for the next four years.  Amongst the first winners of funding are the Imperial War Museum and the Exhibition Road Cultural Group working with the Dickens Museum.

And don’t forget that the Heritage Lottery Fund has recently consulted on the importance of digital media in advance of their next strategy. They have said there has been a really high level of support for digital media across the heritage sector, particularly from museums that see the potential to open up their collections to reach new audiences. 

I genuinely believe that this is an exciting time for museums.  Of course, this debate takes place in a context of difficult finances.  But if the only press releases we issue are about cuts and reverses, decline will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We need to keep looking to the future, and this is an age of great innovation and change of which museums should take advantage.

Earlier this year I was asked by someone involved in this conference what my idea of a great museum was.  I replied - “enterprising”.  I was delighted when I visited the museumpreneurs website to find their mission statement:

“We want to explore what it means for a museum to be entrepreneurial, we want to showcase museums already being entrepreneurial, and we want to help more museums be more entrepreneurial more of the time”. 

For better or worse, that sums up my approach pretty well.

This is an extraordinary time.  Recent museum openings have shown that museums still have a central role in defining our sense of place.  And this amazing age of technology provides museums with an unparalleled opportunity to reinvent themselves. I hope you will get the chance over the next few days to debate these important issues. Thank you again for inviting me to speak. I can now take questions from the floor.