Museum crisis in the provinces

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
While national museums benefit from more state funding, in the regions many are struggling, with education services bearing the brunt. Steven Hastings reports.

Despite the success of new ventures, such as Tate Modern, there is widespread concern that not enough is being done to ensure other high-quality projects are sustained and developed. The Government recently promised an extra pound;100 million for museums by 2002 but even this will not enable most of them to make widespread improvements. David Barrie, director of the National Arts Collections Fund, describes it as "little more than a gesture".

Most of the extra money will to go on mending leaking roofs and safeguarding collections. Only about pound;5 million of the promised extra government funding is earmarked for the regions, a total of around pound;5,000 per museum.

Mr Barrie claims that regional and local museums, often the first stop for school visits, are facing "death by 1,000 cuts". He says: "It is unreasonable to expect museums to be an effective educational resource if their core activities are being depleted, corroded and undermined. The pound;5 million is a laughable amount."

When funding is tight, education is often the first service to be reduced. Many galleries have budgets of as little as pound;500 a year for education. Christopher Naylor, of the National Association for Gallery Education, says more money is also needed to train education staff.

"A recent survey found that just 12 per cent of staff dealing with school visits actually felt they were properly qualified to do so," Mr Naylor said. "How can schools get the best out of a visit unless we have properly trained staff to help them?" Attempts to boost funding for regional projects through National Lottery funds have produced mixed results. While Walsall has basked in the admiration of its outstanding New Art Gallery, there have been failures. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield received a succession of emergency hand-outs since t opened two years ago but has now closed. There are fears that other attractions will announce difficulties this autumn it their summer visitor figures have not lived up to expectations.

"What we have seen," says Jane Morris, editor of the Museums Journal, "is that expensive Lottery-funded projects have succeeded only when they're attached to an established, successful institution. Other attractions have found it hard to get a foothold in a competitive marketplace. There has to be a shift from huge capital projects to the support of better grassroots provision."

The Government, in response to these criticisms, has designated funding to establish a dozen inner-city partnerships aimed at increasing access not only to museums but also to theatre and television studios. In the long term, it is hoped that these will enable a wider range of young people to find jobs in the arts. In the short term, it is an attempt to break down some of the perceived barriers which stop schools making full use of local museums.

Eighty per cent of children will not have visited a museum within the past three months. Individual museums, as well as the Government, are trying to find ways to tackle the problem of attracting the next generation of visitors.

Tyne and Wear Museums Service is one of those trying to develop a more hands-on approach for school visits, with some galleries staging exhibitions specifically for children. As a result, museums in the region have reported a substantial increase in the number of children visiting.

"It is only in the past five years that museums have realised how hard they have to work to attract children and school visits," says Ms Morris. "More funding is needed to sustain this effort.

"It's not enough to churn out an education pack and offer a nice welcome. To children, entertainment usually means technology and that comes at a price. The product has to be exciting. Children have higher expectations than ever before."

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