A very British Bonfire of the Vanities?

A digitised lantern slide of a huge bonfire surrounded by a crowd.

Huge bonfire surrounded by a crowd. Digitised lantern slide for Oregon State University Archives.

ACE (Arts Council England), announced its funding to its “National portfolio” of organisations through to 2015 on Wednesday 30th March 2011.

Whilst I believe strongly that ACE is a good thing overall, I have been (and will undoubtedly continue to be) to be critical of various aspects of it. I was concerned to hear that some of the responsibilities held by the mla (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) would be transferred to ACE.

Months later, I remain concerned about what happens to heritage. I have been quite critical of the MLA too – but I had been a great supporter of (and had worked with) NEMLAC (North East Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) and its predecessor. NEMLAC became mla-NE when the MLA took it over and reduced it. I was just one of the many people who had worked quietly but very hard over more than two decades on encouraging high standards and promotion of the North of England’s cultural heritage (especially the North East’s). I am disappointed with and angry about how our efforts and achievements have been thrown onto the scrapheap so fast, apparently without thought about consequences.

There was a lot of noise on Twitter and eleswhere online about the cuts to funding of specific arts organisations by Arts Council England. They have reduced their National portfolio of 849 organisations to 695. It will be a terrible blow to those who work in and use the organisations which will no longer receive ACE funding. I do feel for them, and understand that some will not survive.

Arts Council England states that their grant in aid budget is reduced by 14.9%. Jeremy Hunt (currently, at time of writing, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport) was quoted by the BBC News website:

“This means that the Arts Council’s overall annual budget will reduce by £20 million (11.8%) by April 2015, putting it in a much better position than many other parts of the public sector,” he said.

The Secretary of State was including the extra Lottery money that will be made available 2013 to 2015. Lottery money is very different to grant in aid. Lottery grant money can only be spent on capital projects, thus encouraging setting up things that are quite likely to be unsustainable or kill off older organisations or venues – but that is a whole other article (or book).

Meanwhile, far more severe cuts which have the potential for irretrievable long-term or permanent damage to our culture cause apparently little response. Most of the senior people in cultural heritage are, in general, still remaining very quiet in public about the cuts to cultural heritage. England’s national, statutory heritage institution is facing a cut of 31%, and its Chief Executive, Simon Thurley, is trying to smile bravely through and present a positive face to the world. We should not even try to pretend that this level of reduction in funds is a mere belt-tightening exercise, however. It is a huge cut to one of the major cultural heritage institutions in the UK, the work of which affects all of us living in England.

English Heritage cutting its whole outreach division was shocking. I can only guess at how difficult the discussions on how to make the cuts were. I was there (and was made redundant as a result of) the last major cuts to the organisation. My role involved coordinating the Historic Properties in Care North Region’s planning and policy, and at one point worked on a report reviewing the privatisation of the craftspeople. I know how very tough it was then, how much stress it caused to so many staff. I also know what types of irreplaceable expertise were lost then.

There has been a noticeable reduction of people with and being trained in the traditional skills needed to maintain historic properties. Within the last 12 months, a fund has been set up to try to reverse this trend. English Heritage used to have apprenticeships in traditional skills, especially stonemasonry and carving. I remember clearly that the ceremony and lunch to mark the completion of apprenticeships was one of the North region’s big events, with the apprentices looking a little awkward at the attention and their families beaming with pride. These reductions in budget are about fracturing people’s lives, fracturing the continuity of passing on skills to the next generations.

I am not sure how aware people are that English Heritage is a big museums organisation too. There are also object and archaeological stores that have to maintain suitable environmental conditions, be monitored, and kept secure. If people do not keep a watch over such things, your heritage gets stolen and sold in other countries.

Besides the cuts to English Heritage, the cuts to the MLA /Arts Council budget combined with cuts in local authority budgets are affecting many museums. Some are closing or have closed, or local authorities are trying to sell off some of their collections. The less obvious results of reduced funding include:

  • reduction in opening hours (including having to be closed on bank holidays);
  • perhaps some areas of the museum not being open because of insufficient staff;
  • no in-house expertise in the collections or part of the collections, so less information and education being available.

Your heritage is shutting down, being sold off, becoming inaccessible to you, your children and your grandchildren.

Some of us are having discussions about why there is so little fuss about such cuts to museums and heritage generally.

There was, thank goodness, a good response by historic environment professionals when the leader of a district council said that he would stop archaeological investigations relating to building developments. After ascertaining that the reporters had indeed recorded and published Councillor Melton’s speech accurately, the senior archaeological professionals conferred with each other before issuing statements and writing letters.  The event became known as ‘Bunnygate’ (#bunnygate on Twitter, and a Facebook page was set up) because the councillor had rather bizarrely called archaeologists “bunny huggers.” Blogs and tweets were written (see my earlier post ‘Fenland, bunny huggers and polar bears’ and post-graduate student Ruth’s excellent round-up of articles, blogs and other media on the subject), petition created and signed; and even T-shirts were designed to raise awareness of this threat to the historic environment.

Why is there not this kind of response to the closure and threat to museums, or to other heritage institutions? Why are they apparently taking a ‘show must go on’ approach, and trying to pretend that their legs have not been chopped off?

It is hard for supporters to fight for heritage as a whole when organisations do not make information about the cuts and their impact available so it can be aggregated. If it is aggregated, it can be presented as compelling stories and clever visualisations that begin to help people to understand what is happening. The end result may not be a restitution of public funding, but it may encourage more would-be philanthropists to engage with our heritage. So many public museums and galleries were set up by and with collections from a previous generation of philanthropists, and today’s wealthier people might find it equally satisfying and fun to be patrons of public heritage.

Many of today’s politicians seem to regard arts and cultural heritage as mere vanities, luxuries that should be publicly cast off and destroyed. Cultural heritage inspires the creativity that much of the rest of the world admires about the UK. It is the social glue of communities. It is the allure that sells many British television programmes and pulls in so many tourists. It is part of who we are, were and will be. So, how about dousing the bonfire with data, and taking a very un-British approach to our culture by being proud enough of it to keep it safe for the future?


I had contemplated writing the post above a year ago , but I thought I would wait until more detailed announcements about cuts. I considered it again in autumn 2010 but there was still insufficient detail (at least, in the publicly-known information) about which budgets would be reduced by how much. I started writing this post in April.

It is very ironic that hours after I finally finish and publish it, there is an news release from the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport):

£55million to help cultural organisations build endowments.

Remember that this has been made available after some cultural organisations have been forced to close through loss of grants, and many have had to lose staff (including experts with decades of experience). I hope that the endowments idea works. I have always been sceptical that we could fund cultural institutions as much through philanthropy as the United States does. And cultural institutions in the US seem to have been feeling the cold wind of recession as well.

But that is a whole other post or series of posts.


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