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Study finds declining public investment levels have resulted in museum trusts using reserves to plug gaps, running the risk of contravening their legal obligations as charities.

A mannequin in armour sitting on a fake horse at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds
Many museums have experienced cuts in local government support in recent years

Jayfredem/Creative Commons

Museum service leaders have been left "demotivated, wrung out and drained" due to ongoing financial pressures, a study commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE) has found.

The report, which looked at how the reduction in funding from local authorities is affecting local museums, found that local authority spending on museums and galleries fell from £286m in 2009/10 to £241m 2022/23 - a 16% drop before taking inflation into account. On the ground, museum leaders reported varying levels of funding reductions over the period.

A total of 35 stakeholders from 30 museum services were consulted as part of the research, with one museum trust highlighting a 47% drop in their local authority funding between 2011/12 and 2022/23. 


Another reported a similar scale reduction since 2015/16, while another reports an 80% difference between 2009/10 and 2022/23.

All stakeholders expressed a need for greater flexibility and support to help with increasing the financial sustainability of museums and researchers were made aware of the impact on people working in the sector.

'Wrung out'

"One of the observations in delivering the interviews with service heads was the physical and mental toll that the recent and current financial pressures are having on them," the report states.

"Many are drained by the stress of trying to keep their service afloat and constantly firefighting to deal with budget shortfalls.

"Staff reported feeling 'old and tired', 'demotivated', 'wrung out', 'drained', 'had the stuffing knocked out of them'."

The report also found that for many services, there was a suggestion that investment from Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund was making up for shortfalls in local authority budgets. 

"In other words, substituting core funding and simply helping services to keep the doors open rather than achieving their potential to deliver a range of economic, cultural, social and educational outcomes for their local areas," the report states. 

"Services raised concerns around their ability to deliver against the NPO targets and commitments and contribute to achieving the vision set out in Arts Council’s Let’s Create Strategy or the Heritage Fund’s 10-year strategy."

Forced to use reserves

Meanwhile, several museum trusts raised concerns about running close to or being at their ringfenced level of reserves. Researchers were told that in some cases, trusts had dipped into their reserves to plug a shortfall in their budget with the hope that they may be able to replenish their reserves in future years. 

"As trusts are registered charities, they are required to adhere to regulations set out by the Charity Commission for England and Wales," the report states. 

"The financial challenges facing trusts because of declining public investment levels run the risk of contravening their obligations as set out by the Commission."

ACE said it hopes the work, which was carried out by DC Research and Wavehill, can support museums, local authorities and stakeholders with budget planning, and "encourage a strategic and collaborative approach to considering the funding challenges facing both museums and local government".

Liz Johnson, Director, Museums & Collections Development at ACE said that supporting a dynamic museums sector is at the heart of the organisation's strategy. 

"We recognise that local authorities face tough decisions due to pressures on their finances," she said. 

"The Arts Council is not able to replace local authority funding, but it is our responsibility as the national museums development agency to advocate for their value in public life and to work with central and local government to continue to make the case for sustained investment in museums.

"The sector is keen to have the tools to address the challenges they face and we are here to support them, and to help them work together, so that we can create inspiring museums and collections that are fit for the future."