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UK museums cannot fulfil core purpose due to spending cuts – report

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Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum interior.

Public spending cuts combined with soaring art prices are impeding British museums in carrying out their core purpose of maintaining and developing their collections, according to a report.

The Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation commissioned David Cannadine, a historian and president of the British Academy, to look into the current state of museum collecting. His report, Why Collect?, calls for increased government spending for UK museums and galleries.

The report highlights the ever-widening gap between the spiralling prices of works on the international art market and the limited acquisition funds available. Public spending on museums has decreased by 13% in real terms over the last decade.

Meanwhile, the workloads of museum directors and curators has increased dramatically to include education, community outreach, social inclusion and more.

The report states: “The pressures and expectations placed on museums and galleries by both national and local government – to make more of their collections more available to more people, to increase the numbers and diversity of their audiences, to widen public access and social inclusion, to engage more fully with their local communities, to improve individual health and general wellbeing, to contribute to what is described as ‘place-making’ and to help promote the United Kingdom’s interests and influence overseas – have never been greater, more insistent or more unrelenting than they have become since 1997.”

Other key findings from the report include:

  • The £333m ($450m) recently paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is more than half the entire amount that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other London-based official bodies allocated to England’s museums and galleries in 2016-17.
  • The museums of the UK have experienced a decade of diminished funding: in real terms, public spending on museums and galleries in England has declined by 13%, from £829m in 2007 to £720m 10 years later, and the reduction has been greatest in funding provided by local authorities.
  • For those employed in museums, “salary levels are 7% lower than the market average in comparable sectors, rising to 25% below market rate for junior roles in collections and curations management”.
  • Many museums and galleries only display a fraction of their holdings – often less than 10% – and the report references recent arguments for making their stored collections more publicly available.
  • Only half of the 266 UK museums and galleries surveyed, had a specific budget allocation for collecting, and in most cases it was rarely more than 1% of the overall amount that was spent.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “My thanks to Sir David Cannadine for this timely and penetrating report on the state of museum collecting in the UK today. To have a historian of his stature surveying this important area is invaluable.

“His concerns over the lack of public investment in the growth and care of our nation’s collections, and in the people responsible for them, should be heeded. Museum collections have a demonstrable impact on people’s cultural lives and wellbeing and are thus a vital part of the social fabric of our country.”

Image: c. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin.

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