Costing the past

Leslie Griffiths on the importance of public funding for England’s smaller museums and galleries

Later today in the House of Lords, Conservative Peer Patrick Cormack will lead a welcome debate on the problems currently faced by museums and galleries across England. I have some experience in this field. For over two decades, I had responsibility for the Museum of Methodism situated at Wesley’s Chapel on London’s City Road. This made me more than aware of the key questions being addressed in today’s debate and put forward in the Mendoza Review.

There are well over two thousand small museums scattered around the country and the contribution to community life and social identity cannot easily be overestimated. These museums are of course, miniscule in comparison to the UK’s great national museums – miniscule but no less important.

The People’s History Museum (PHM) has figured prominently in recent debates in the Lords and I would certainly add my voice to those who have spoken on this subject. The PHM will bring forward significant programmes to celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act and the enfranchisement of women; and also, in a years’ time, the centenary of the Peterloo Massacre.

It is important to give the work of such a demotic institution the same esteem as the more grand and famous museums of our country. I understand that DCMS funding was withdrawn from the PHM as it did not qualify as a ‘national’ museum.

The Arts Council of England (ACE) determines which museum collections can be designated as having national significance. There are 144 of these in England, and the PHM has been included since 1998. The museum however, has also been encouraged to be considered as a ‘national portfolio organisation’ – a designation that has replaced the current major partner museum system. My question to the government today will be rather simple: is the PHM a national museum or not?

DCMS intends to facilitate, along with ACE and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the development of a Museums Action Plan and to report by September of this year. All nine objectives identified in the Mendoza Review will be addressed in this study.

While efficiencies must be achieved, it is clear that recent cuts in support have led to the closure of dozens of museums and galleries; along with the impoverishment of services in those that remain. A clear responsibility for this rests with the government and I hope DCMS will work closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and other departments to support the museums sector. And in doing so, the relevant ministers should ensure that heritage and cultural projects beyond London receive adequate attention.

Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port is Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 23rd January 2018

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