University Museums Group Annual Conference: Better Together?

Minister of State for Digital and Culture delivers keynote address at the University Museums Group Annual Conference

The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP

It is a pleasure to speak today at the University Museums Annual Conference.

You might ask why I’ve chosen to give my first major speech on museums at the University Museum conference. It’s not just because of the work you do, Kate, to promote and support museums around the country. It’s not just out of respect for my brilliant predecessor, Ed Vaizey, who committed to give this address.

It’s also that, for my first speech on museums I wanted to come back to university museums where it first began.

In 1683, over three hundred and thirty years ago, twenty five miles from here the Ashmolean in Oxford was the first museum in the world to open its doors to the public.

Those first visitors were not only able to admire the impressive collection of Elias Ashmole, they could attend lectures in the School of Natural History and learn about chemistry - or Experimental Philosophy as they knew it then - in the cutting edge laboratories.

So the museum movement, so important to our understanding of the world, began in a university, with the collection a focal point linking disciplines, study and cross-fertilisation that so many museums continue to this day.

The modern museum experience, of active engagement not just passive admiration, began right here in the UK. We should all be rightly proud of that.

Our task, and our duty, is to see that admirable history become a thriving present and transform into an inspirational future.

What then of the present?

We live in an era of great challenges and great opportunities.

Money is tight and change seems the only constant. Of course some face specific problems.

Yet the creativity of our museum staff and leadership has led our museums through recent challenges to a position of strength.

Last year, three of our museums - the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate - were ranked in the top ten most visited worldwide. These three museums all combine the strength of our history with the very best of modern Britain.

It’s not just the big museums - despite the challenges, new museums are opening. Last year footfall rose. Tourism remains strong and the capability of curating is world class.

The digital revolution offers opportunities to increase interest, to collaborate, and to reach audiences unimaginable in their breadth just a few years ago. Social media allows you to inspire humanity on a scale never before seen.

Academic collaboration globally is now the norm. Put an image of an object online, and who knows what extra information or inspiration can be gleaned?

I want to acknowledge the challenges directly, yet balance these challenges against the opportunities that are being seized, and are there to be seized.

Earlier this year we published a new Culture White Paper, the first in 50 years. It sets out this Government’s vision for ensuring people from all walks of life have access to arts and culture, and our strategy for helping the sector to thrive. If you haven’t read it, do. My only regret, having arrived in post after it was written, is that it doesn’t have my name on it – it is an excellent piece of work.

The Culture White Paper committed us to a Museums Review to address the future of museums candidly, and deliver clear recommendations for action.

I am delighted Neil Mendoza is leading the review which will be a deep, thorough and thoughtful study both of those museums directly sponsored by government, and of what they should deliver for their core funding, along with issues faced by ‘non-national’ museums.

We will examine what the challenges are for the sector, and also identify the opportunities. We will discuss how the government and statutory bodies can better support you. Our focus will be on increasing access, on forging partnerships and shared services, on digitising collections, and - in our increasingly connected world – on global international work.

I encourage you to have your say. The initial call for evidence is open until 31st October, which is an age in politics but the blink of an eye in the life of a museum, so I encourage you to be quick.

The theme of this address is ‘Better Together’. So today I want to discuss how we can work better together to overcome the challenges of today, and reach our shared goal.

First, how do we work better together between Government and museums. Next, how do we work better together with audiences, and finally how do we work better together in the digital age.

Let’s start with the links to Government.

I believe in the intrinsic and social value of museums, in their role in shaping our society and their potential to shape for the better everyone in our society.

So I see public funding as the cornerstone of support for culture.

Of course that means direct public support, delivered through direct taxpayer support for major partner museums. It means support to help accredited museums in England become more sustainable through the Museum Resilience Fund, which in this year’s funding round supported over 90 museums and organisations around the country.

Support comes in the form of HEFCE funding for universities, the DCMS/Wolfson museums and galleries improvement fund, and of course a very significant injection from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We are bringing the learning from the creative tax credits which are helping other sectors like film, theatres and orchestras, and are currently consulting on proposed new museums and galleries tax relief to support museums in developing both a greater number of, and more higher quality exhibitions.

We want to hear your ideas and views on its design too.

This national public support for culture is important, and has risen since 2010. But public support is only part of the picture. Philanthropic support remains vital.

Social investment revenues are valuable, and the fastest rising area of revenue is commercial.

Continuing to diversify university museums income will be key to your future success.

Last week, DCMS, Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the innovation charity NESTA together launched a new match-funded pilot in conjunction with Crowdfunder UK to test which models of crowdfunding – which is growing rapidly - work best for your sector.

So we want to help you to think more broadly about how to boost other revenues, to help build financial resilience alongside public investment.

Next, let us turn to working together with audiences – and potential audiences.

I care deeply that we make our museums open – literally and figuratively – to all people, from all backgrounds, in all parts of our country.

In the previous Culture White Paper, Jennie Lee stressed the problems of access and inclusivity. She argued that art and culture should never be the preserve of the privileged few. Fifty years on, we assert the same goal.

Now as then we must strive so that none be excluded - from any walk of life, with any accent, from any ethnicity or any postcode.

Good work is happening.

Visitor numbers – your audiences – are up.

We have around 1,800 museums in the UK that are recognised for their high quality.

And many of these thriving museums can be found outside London.

Since its reopening after refurbishment, the Great North Museum in Newcastle has had 3 million visitors over the last six years.

The Arts Council is leading the way, both in what it looks for, for its core funding and through targeted action like the Cultural Citizens’ Programme.

University Museums are the ideal spaces. In 2015, a collaboration between Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Youth Arts Partnership, called Kick Arts (I must watch how I say that), provided an inspirational setting to help re-engage young people who had left education through weekly arts workshops tailored to their interests, working towards an Arts Award qualification.

It’s a great example of how university museums can contribute substantially to widening participation, often being the first contact that children and young people have with Higher Education.

Access is also about our engagement with the wider world.

Following the vote to leave the European Union, our museums, like our universities, have a vital role to play. You are absolutely central to our post-Brexit future, open and engaged with the whole world, progressive and positive in shaping how Britain sees herself and is seen the world over.

You are very clearly leading the way in innovation and research, in supporting the UK’s economic success and global influence.

That’s the second way we can work better together – with our audiences at home and around the world.

The third area I want to talk about is linked: how we work better together in the digital age.

I believe that we are living through a digital revolution as profound in its effects as the industrial revolution or the revolution that followed the printing press and the enlightenment it sparked.

In each case, those revolutions of the past brought with them great change, but were ultimately of huge benefit to humanity.

Just as the invention of the printing press, in the century before the founding of the Ashmolean, led to a radical collapse in the cost of storing and transmitting information, and wrought in its wake the end of feudalism, the breakdown of the power of the church, the start of mass education, the global transmission of ideas and the empowerment of man, so the digital revolution has once again radically collapsed the cost of storing and transmitting information, challenging established power, enabling the global spread of education, and bringing with it once again the disruption that causes and the potential to emancipate billions of people around the world.

Our world-class museums, including our fantastic university collections, have an exciting role to play in this great revolution.

Digitising and publishing online museum collections opens them up, potentially to all mankind.

And you know what’s happening?

People are using them in remarkable ways that no-one had ever thought of.

It’s the same whenever we open up data to the public. Someone, somewhere, analyses it, mashes it and uses it in ways that no one who had access beforehand could possibly have imagined. No matter how brilliant those of us with private access may be, we are nothing compared to the collective brainpower of humanity. A whole world of ideas can be brought to bear.

You here, at Reading University, are at the forefront with your pioneering work on virtual museums.

This link, this sweet spot of the combination of digital and creative cultural ideas, is our future. It is a hugely exciting opportunity for understanding the world around us, and bringing culture to as many people as possible.

Just a few weeks ago Dr Gabriele Finaldi at the National Gallery reached 200,000 viewers in a Facebook live broadcast, about “Beyond Caravaggio”.

Those who’ve done it, who’ve put their collections online, tell me it doesn’t replace physical footfall – it drives it.

They tell me they find out things about their collections they didn’t know, and had no way of knowing, before.

It brings new ways to generate revenues, and it drives access to all.

As Minister for Digital and Culture, I want to drive this synthesis of culture with digital technology, and when it comes to the digitisation and dissemination of our great collections, I want Britain to be a world leader.

Because it’s at this nexus - where Tech meets art, where digital meets creativity - that we will build a strong and thriving future economy that can work for all.

So let us work together, to rise to the challenges, to seize the opportunities, and with better collaboration, better engagement, and better use of digital technology, let us work better together for a stronger future in which all can reach their potential.

Published 22 September 2016