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Cultural Famine: Austerity in the UK’s Heritage Sector Cuts Deep

Museums across the country are being forced to close as the reality of austerity-struck Brexit Britain hits home

The Long Shop Museum, Leiston, under threat after Suffolk County Council cut arts and culture spending by 100% Photo:geogphotos/Alamy

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It is, perhaps, a cautionary tale of over-consumption. In 2022, the UK was to celebrate its first ever food museum. In a nation burdened with a historical perception of infamously bad food, this was a culinary fight back. Housed in idyllic settings, including a medieval barn, watermill and bee-filled walled garden, Stowmarket’s Food Museum promised to tickle their visitor’s palates with a smorgasbord of cultural delights – from war-time food exhibitions to delving into the gastronomic history of British Empire.

Sadly, such visions have gone stale, and a bitter taste is all that is left in the mouths of its staff following news that the Food Museum is threatened with closure.

Suffolk County Council this week announced it would completely eliminate arts and culture funding from its budget by 2025. With a 100% cut to its spending on culture, Suffolk’s decision threatens the survival of its vital cultural hubs, including the Long Shop Museum of industrial heritage in Leiston, Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, and – yes – the Food Museum. 

Many in the sector fear this alarm bell signals worse to come: a devastating trend for the cultural landscape of the nation facing cuts after cuts under successive Conservative governments. In an attempt to cushion the blow, Suffolk council has earmarked £528,000 of Covid recovery funds to help. But many say this is only a temporary measure, providing a stay of execution rather than a sustainable solution. 

Fraser Hale, the Director of the Long Museum, says that it’s a slippery slope of funding. “The problem is that with a cut in council funds, the overall pot of money out there for all cultural support becomes even harder to access. Proving that what your museum is trying to do is a unique proposition becomes tougher,” he told Byline Times, “especially if the local council has said it won’t help. Grant makers are nervous about putting money into things that they are not certain will give a good return.”

The Food Museum staff are not the only ones facing famine. Hampshire Cultural Trust, a charity that runs more than 20 cultural venues across the county, has confirmed it may be forced to shut down four museums and one arts centre in response to local authority funding cuts. Hampshire County Council is set to reduce its grant funding by £600,000 annually until 2027, down from £2.5m. The trust also faces another £400,000 grant reduction after taking over the management of Winchester’s Great Hall.

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From Nottingham to Middlesbrough, councils are considering or implementing deep cuts to cultural budgets. Nottingham City Council, amidst bankruptcy woes, has proposed eliminating its entire cultural budget, while Middlesbrough Council is debating a withdrawal from the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, potentially leaving the Dorman Museum as the sole custodian of the town’s heritage. 

The Local Government Association has highlighted the precarious position of councils caught in the “eye of an inflationary storm,” with a £4 billion funding gap looming over the next two years. And such threatened closures signal the hard reality that cultural institutions are all-too-often often the first to go in budget slaughters.

The entire sector is feeling the pinch. A number of museums have already been forced to close under a range of funding cutbacks. Last October, the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) was forced to find new space for its collections following the decision by Middlesex University to close the institution. Around the same time, the Camden-based Jewish Museum of London shut its doors following a sharp drop of income in the pandemic and ever-decreasing visitor numbers. Similarly, the Bath Postal Museum had to close up shop after 44 years – just months after its founder, Audrey Swindells MBE, passed away.  And the Florence Nightingale Museum in Southwark was forced to close during the pandemic, only just re-opening on a part-time basis. 

Those that can stay open are feeling a terrible belt-tightening. In 2023, the staff of The Burrell Collection in Glasgow’s Pollok Park and the Kelvingrove Museum went on strike, downing tools in protest over threats to their gallery’s curators and conservators. Glasgow Life, which runs the city’s museums, has said it needed to make cuts of some £7.1m. Of painful note, the Burrell Collection won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award last year.

All of this, perhaps ironically, comes against a backdrop of nationwide increases in museum visits with some institutions even surpassing their pre-pandemic attendance figures. Just as the UK seeks to find its post-pandemic cultural feet, money for the sector has become too tight to mention.

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The Museums Association (MA) has waded into the debate, calling for new public investment in museums, with director Sharon Heal saying in her recent Museum Manifesto: “Decades of funding cuts have put museums in a vulnerable position of managed decline, where reduction of services and closure are the only options.”

“We are calling for a fair and long-term funding settlement for local government to enable local authorities to support and invest in their museums,” she said. But words, in the face of years of catastrophic misspending and cuts by councils may not be enough.

One museum manager who works for a local council-funded museum, told Byline Times that “the future of the very institution hangs in the balance. These are the places that hold the history of the United Kingdom and the memories of society and community.” 

“It is well known within the sector that museum workers are, without doubt, over-worked and under-paid. We often hold three or more roles within a single job title,” they said. “As we are facing a potential collapse in local authority funded museums, arts and culture across the UK, it is no doubt that this comes from years of Conservative austerity and ineptitude of government.”

As the Food Museum is threatened with the chop, the wider cultural sector and its communities and leaders are left to wonder what the future holds for the nation’s heritage. And to contemplate just how far the promises of a prosperous post-Brexit Britain have fallen short.

As one museum manager told Byline Times: “We are fearful of losing our jobs but even more, we are frightened of losing the history of the nation that we have worked so incredibly hard to keep alive for future generations.”

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