New report calls for increased investment in museums and their collections
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New report calls for increased investment in museums and their collections
Item from the Staffordshire Hoard. Image courtesy of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

LONDON.- Why Collect?, a report on museum collecting in the UK by historian Sir David Cannadine, was launched at Tate Modern today. The publication was commissioned by Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation to mark 40 years of their collaboration in bringing art and objects into public collections.

The report highlights the ever-widening gap between the spiralling prices of works on the international art market and the limited acquisition funds available to museums and galleries in the UK. It calls for increased investment in museums and their collections, as public spending on museums has decreased by 13% in real terms over the last decade. It is, writes Cannadine, a report that ‘instead of giving comfort and reassurance, expresses anxiety and concern.’

Cannadine’s analysis of museum and gallery collecting traces its history from the 1830s to the present day, and is accompanied by 11 case studies which explore various facets of the social and cultural impact of collecting. This is supported by statistical evidence from a national survey involving 266 collecting institutions. The report was undertaken to address the question of how, why and on what scale publicly funded museums and galleries continue to expand their collections. It includes the following:

Investment in museum collections
· Cannadine cites the £333m recently paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, 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.

· A recent survey is referenced which shows the UK government spends less on culture in percentage terms than Denmark or France, or Hungary or Latvia.

· 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.

· There is evidence to suggest that through this decline ‘attention (and thus resources) has shifted away from what must be the core purpose [of] museums and galleries…to maintain, develop and curate their collections’.

· The morale, confidence and the numbers of curatorial staff, who are essential to the management, display and development of the nation’s public art collections, ‘have been in serious decline for some time’.

· 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.’

Museum collecting and display
· The report assesses the arguments for extending and adding to museum collections – above all so ‘they remain dynamic and evolving rather than inert and lifeless’.

· 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. For example, the establishment of the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre, housing around 1.4million objects, and open to the public seven days a week, or the V&A’s whole new facility for this purpose in east London.

· The digital revolution has enabled entire collections to be accessed and viewed online and ‘the more that we can learn about collections from exploring them online, the more we are likely to want to go and visit them in situ’.

· 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. Although almost all of the respondents had been able to add objects to their collections over the last five years, gifts and bequests were the most frequently used methods. The survey results demonstrated that, except in the case of the national museums, collecting for most museums and galleries is no more than a marginal activity.

Case studies
The impact of new acquisitions of works of art and objects was found to be transformative both for museums and the people visiting them – in many different ways – in nine of the report’s eleven case studies:

· In Manchester the relatively unusual acquisition of a refugee’s life jacket from Greece was part of a new approach to thematic collecting, and formed part of Manchester Museum’s remit to ‘promote understanding between cultures and develop a sustainable world’.

· In the case of Hull, the purchase of Pietro Lorenzetti’s early Renaissance masterpiece Christ between Saints Paul and Peter (c1320) significantly raised the profile of the Ferens Art Gallery and, alongside several high profile national partnership exhibitions, helped to demonstrate increased confidence and ambition during the lead-in to Hull’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2017.

· Glasgow Museums acquired examples of contemporary Indian painted truck backs – examples of Punjabi street art - to engage more closely with the city’s multicultural communities.

· At the University of Cambridge, its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology bought contemporary Australian art with an aim to shed light on, and create discussion around, colonial depictions of Aboriginal culture from the middle of the 19th century.

· In Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent the acquisition and display of a locally discovered Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard brought increased visitor numbers and tangible educational and economic benefits to both cities.

· In Belfast, the Ulster Museum initiated a project to tell an inclusive and diverse story of the Troubles, and acquired artefacts for a dedicated gallery.

· In Folkestone, an independent arts charity, the Creative Foundation, pioneered a new way of collecting and displaying civic art, thereby contributing to the town’s much-needed economic and social regeneration.

· In Eastbourne, the Towner Art Gallery raised its profile and attracted new funding by focussing on collecting contemporary film and video work.

· Tate Modern in London pioneered the collection of performance-based and live action work, facing the inherent practical and financial challenges head on.

· The remaining two case studies look, by contrast, at deaccessioning – the very opposite of collecting. The Imperial War Museum’s disposal of selected materials in order to focus and refine its collections was part of a carefully managed strategy. Meanwhile the disposal of an ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka (c2400-2300 BC) from Northampton Museum and Art Gallery by Northampton Borough Council, in order to raise funds for a capital project, aroused considerable controversy.

Download the report at

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