The UK is set to have a new prime minister, the fourth in six years. A new culture secretary would be the seventh in six years. If that’s you, welcome to work. Much of your memory is dominated by the digital sector and broadcasting. But the museums are the fun part. Here are the top three challenges you will face.
First, keep the lights on. Museums consume a lot of energy. The National Gallery spends over £1 million a year on it. Energy bills are set to quadruple, but museums have yet to recover from Covid – visitor numbers are still at least a third lower – and will struggle to pay. So you’ll have to persuade the Treasury to fund another bailout of the museum. It won’t need to be as big as the Covid bailout. Oliver Dowden can tell you who to call.
Second, to avoid further bailouts, you will have to deal with this drop in visitor numbers. Many of our national museums relied on foreign visitors to maintain their numbers. Sometimes they represented up to 70% of the total number of visitors. You will know, but cannot tell, that post-Brexit travel difficulties mean many will not be returning. Museums will therefore have to refocus on national audiences.
They will be reluctant. UK museums are the last major unreformed public sector, and you will need to change the way they think about their audience. End the “build it and they will come” mentality and stop them from building new expansions and bigger entrances. The audiences that our great museums have neglected – the poor, the disabled, those living outside of London and the South East, the ethnically diverse (the latter make up only 8% of museum visitors, despite representing 17% of the population) – probably won’t spend £100 on a return ticket to London just to see a new front door.
Here’s the silver lining: solving this problem fits perfectly with the upgrade program. One thing you’ll notice first is that all but two of the 15 “national” museums you fund directly are in London. Not only do they get most of the money, but they also have the best art, more in fact than they know what to do with.
Yet elsewhere, locally funded museums are facing unprecedented cutbacks and even closures. Local communities are short of money. Your government colleagues could of course give more money to local museums or make cultural provision a statutory requirement of local authorities (like library provision). But let’s not pretend they will.
You, however, can compel our national museums to share their art and expertise across the country and connect with UK audiences like never before. I’m not talking just one or two images on a glorified tour, but thousands of works on long-term loan to museums, heritage sites, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Do that, and in a year you can do more to correct Britain’s cultural and educational inequalities than any other cabinet minister. (You’ll have to ignore those who talk about stringent and expensive environmental conditions for exhibiting art. Old paintings are tougher than they say.)
Finally, restitution. You will soon be asked to sign export licenses for the first Beninese bronzes returned from a British museum to Nigeria. There will be more. But while some museums can return the art, others, like the V&A and the British Museum, cannot. So you will have to change the law to solve this problem. It only needs a statutory instrument, not primary legislation. Yes, that will mean giving the green light for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. But that time has come.
These days, cultural secretaries get a little over a year in the job. Make the most.