I was appalled to hear that the National Trust plans to ‘dial down’ its role as a cultural institution and focus on the open spaces in its portfolio instead, claiming that the Covid pandemic has merely accelerated an already difficult situation. Even though the Trust has £1.3 billion in reserves, it proposes to keep only 20 of its 500+ historic homes and castles open to the public, to put its collections into storage and to make properties available to people who are prepared to pay more for ‘specialised experiences’. Furthermore, it plans to make 1,200 redundancies, which would include dozens of its specialist curators in areas such as textiles, furniture and libraries, as well as conservation. As Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, observes, ‘the Trust’s senior management have been making a mess of their historic properties for some time, dumbing down presentation and moving away from knowledge and expertise’, adding that it was reckless to abandon expertise built up over generations as ‘once gone, it will be impossible to retrieve’. The Trust has been accused in the past of ‘Disneyfying’ its properties and this latest news will do nothing to dispel alarm. The running of the properties should be handed to an organisation willing to run them according to the founding principles of the Trust. In the meantime I, and probably many others, will not be renewing my membership.
DCMS’s announcement of the government rescue package of £1.57 billion for arts and heritage was received with cautious optimism. There was mention of boosting employment prospects for both permanent staff and freelancers with specific funding for projects that had been mothballed due to Covid, but there is still concern that money will not reach quickly enough areas where it is needed most. With grants available from £50,000 up to £3 million, distribution of funds in the GLAM sector has fallen to Arts Council England, Historic England and National Heritage Lottery Fund. Applications are open for the first phase of grants but, whilst eligibility is wide, the window is short.
More details here: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/culture-recovery-fund-grants#section-1
So, the government has announced its £1.57 billion rescue package for heritage and the arts, but the Culture Minister, Caroline Dinenage, said yesterday that the grants will not be paid until later in the summer and that they would be used to protect “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors” in the regions. Why late summer and not now? That will come far too late for some. And what exactly are the “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors”? Doubtless the crown jewels will turn out to be the big attractions in London, such as the theatres and national museums, taking the lion’s share of the pot to the detriment of many small local museums and theatres.
I have just finished watching Art of Persia, a three-part series on the BBC (still available on iPlayer). It is a stunning portrayal of an amazing country and its fabulous historical and cultural treasures and it made me long to go back. Visiting ancient archaeological sites and beautiful mosques and learning about the Sufi poets, Samira Ahmed was the perfect presenter - interested and enquiring, but making her presentation all about the sites she was seeing and not about her. She reveals how narrow the West’s understanding of Persian culture is. Yet, for 3,000 years, Persia has influenced culture across the world. This was one of the few nations to defeat the Roman Empire. Yet, for most of its existence, Persia was isolated, not least because it held on its own language, even when overrun by Islamic, Arabic-speaking, invaders. Even today, Iran is the only non-Arabic speaking country in the Middle East. The ethos of being Persian is still an integral part of Iranian culture today. Whatever your political views, it is a country well-worth visiting and the local people will welcome you with open arms and generous hospitality.
Back in 2018 I wrote about the 12-week old Weimaraner puppy that had joined Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley’s job is to sniff out bugs that can damage textiles in museum collections and, thereby, prevent an infestation taking hold.
I’m delighted to announce that an extended version of my post about Riley has been published on the Sniffing the Past blog. This site, edited by one of my doctoral supervisors, Chris Pearson, presents reflections about dogs in history and is well worth a read. I also write about dogs being trained to sniff out stolen historic artefacts and trafficked antiquities. Hats off to our canine companions who are starting to play a key role in the preservation of our culture and heritage.
A new report predicts that the creative industries sector will be hit twice as hard as the economy in general as a result of Covid-19. In the report, Oxford Economics forecasts the loss of 119,000 permanent posts and 287,000 freelance roles by the end of 2020. The focus on museums and galleries specifically suggests that £743 million in revenue and 4,000 jobs (representing 5% of the total) could be lost. These shocking statistics are reflected in film, TV, radio and theatre, which will also suffer huge losses.
Link to the report: https://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/publications/report-projected-economic-impact-covid-19-uk-creative-industries
Business secretary Alok Sharma has confirmed that shops, department stores and shopping centres – all indoor spaces with limited room for people to roam – can reopen from Monday 15 June, “provided they put in place the necessary steps to keep their workers and customers safe”. After much public pressure, zoos and safari parks have now been given the green light to welcome visitors. This is great news, as these sites have been living on their nerves while awaiting news about when they can bring essential funds back into their businesses, but the same devastating experience has affected many museums and heritage sites too. With open-air visitor attractions like zoos and indoor retail units deemed safe, why not museums? Just one example of the disconnect in the government’s stance is evident at Covent Garden, where a raft of shops will be reopening on Monday while their neighbour, London Transport Museum, will remain shut. A lack of joined-up thinking or a lack of care and understanding for our culture and heritage?
In the wake of this week’s announcements that the Globe Theatre and the Royal Albert Hall may have to close, Sir Nicholas Kenyon (Managing Director of the Barbican Centre and former director of the BBC Proms) stated on BBC Radio 4 this morning that the survival of the arts can no longer be a side issue. He believes - and rightly so - that different approaches to recovery will be needed for the different sectors of the arts. Social distancing is being relaxed to enable sport to resume, so why, when more people go to the theatre than attend a premier league football match, is there such disparity in funding and political support? If more government support is not forthcoming, so much of our culture and heritage will be lost.
A government taskforce is being set up to help reopen the cultural sector in England. Overseen by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and chaired by a DCMS minister, its responsibilities will include tourism, culture and heritage, libraries, entertainment and sport. The group will be one of five official taskforces helping develop new “Covid-19 secure” guidelines specific to different parts of the economy. The other taskforces will oversee pubs and restaurants, non-essential retail, places of worship and international aviation. Separate sectoral sub-groups will be set up under each taskforce to examine issues specific to that sector. A museums and galleries working group is being set up by the recreation and leisure taskforce. It will work with the museum sector on the possible reopening of institutions in England in stage three of the UK government’s plan for lifting lockdown restrictions. The earliest this could take place is 4 July.
The Cultural Renewal Taskforce panel will be led by Neil Mendoza, the architect of the 2017 Mendoza Review of Museums in England. The other members are:
Part of Mendoza’s brief will be to collaborate with Arts Council England, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic England and other sectoral bodies to develop and deliver a strategy fit to support organisations large and small. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden also announced £200 million in new funding which will be made available for small charities “that are at the heart of their communities”, but without any specific detail on how much of this – if any – would be available for cultural organisations.
The Welsh and Northern Irish governments have published recovery plans where open-air museums will open before other institutions. Museums Galleries Scotland is working with the Scottish government on plans to reopen the museum sector.
Whilst this all sounds very heartening, let’s hope that it’s not too little or too late to help British culture and heritage to rebound from the damaging impacts of the coronavirus lockdown.
This was the stark headline of an article in The Times yesterday (1 May) by its arts correspondent, Richard Morrison. Without the influx of foreign visitors the national museums will suffer. University museums will face funding losses as international students fail to enrol. Many museums and galleries are facing the possibility of permanent closure because of the Coronavirus pandemic and not just the smaller ones: the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth and the Postal Museum in London have already signalled their imminent insolvency. Moreover, the culture secretary seems to be more interested in getting top-level football played again rather than opening any aspect of the arts. As Morrison states, if it’s deemed acceptable for footballers to stand side-by-side in a defensive wall, why shouldn’t dancers be allowed to perform? If we’re allowed to visit supermarkets, why can’t social distancing be applied to our cultural assets? Museums and galleries will need to be creative in what they offer and how they make it available to us. So we must all do our bit to support our cultural heritage once re-opening starts. After all, with the drop in foreign visitors, social distancing will be easier to impose and we’ll be able to enjoy some of our best loved sites without huge crowds. But, above all, we need to lobby government to provide financial support for the hard-pressed smaller museums and galleries that simply may not survive this crisis otherwise.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture