Are national museums politically important?

In terms of being capable of undertaking their whole array of functional activities national museums require a number of things to be made available to them. At the very least these would include some sense of legitimacy to underpin their status as being 'national', with this often being found in ideological constructs of 'nationhood', 'nationalism' and 'nationality' (see the discussions in Smith, 1971, 1995, 1999; Anderson, 2006 [1983]; Mason, 2007; Preziosi, 2011; Shelby, 2014). Secondly, the basic resources of finance, staff and accommodation are needed to provide an embodiment of what these ideological constructs stand for. While it is perfectly feasible for this ideological representation to occur through the simple practice of everyday lived experience - as in the case of intangible heritage - without the requirements for a formal location to house it or official staff to curate, manage, display and explain it, the more normal idea is that these formally identifiable components are what make and give a museum its meaning, particularly in the context of preserving the nation's core memories and artefacts. Thirdly, the national museum as a generic type of institution must have as its central role the presentation of a nation to itself: its contents, and how these are explained, must contribute to perceived and accepted notions of what the nation is. This then reinforces the dominant ideologies that surround the idea of the 'national museum' with these in turn then reinforcing the legitimacy that the institution rests upon.

In practice, each of these requirements depends upon the extent to which governments support their national museums. Whilst it may be anticipated that the role of national museums in contributing to the presentation, if not the direct idealisation, of what the nation stands for (McLean, 1998) would be something that governments would be in favour of and, consequently, would actively support, the level and nature of this support need not necessarily be positively wholehearted. The commitment that governments have towards their national museums will be influenced by multiple factors that rarely have anything at all to do with their status or the role that they are expected to fulfil, and a great deal to do with the circumstances within which governments are functioning. The ex-British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what were the underlying issues and ideas that had had the greatest influence on what he did. His reply was 'events, dear boy, events'. Such a view that political action is simply a matter of contingency may well be overstating the case, but to deny that 'events, dear boy, events' can be of central importance for governmental activity would certainly be to underestimate their importance for everyday political practice.

One way of assessing the extent to which governments are committed to their national museums lies in examining the financial support that such museums get from governments. Rather than look at this in the crude terms of how much individual governments spend on their national museums - which may say nothing more than that some countries have bigger economies than do others - a more sophisticated approach would involve examining two things: the relative amount of public expenditure that governments commit to their national museums, and a longitudinal analysis of changes in financial support for them. The first of these will provide an indication of where national museums lie in the hierarchy of importance that governments give to the multiple activities that they fund. The second will indicate whether museums are more or less favoured than other policy areas when public expenditure grows or declines. The second of these is important as there are clear financial differences between the functions that governments have committed themselves to: providing a national system of social security, for example, is always going to be more expensive than providing a museum will be, simply in terms of the numbers of people involved in the former as tax-payers and recipients of benefits;equally, defence will be more expensive as a result of the heavy, and ongoing, capital costs that are involved in providing this function which are not normally to be found in the case of museums. To take account of these functional differences a longitudinal analysis would identify how national museums fare in comparison with other policy sectors with this serving to demonstrate the extent to which political support for national museums feeds into concrete policy commitments and outcomes. Gray & Wingfield (2010) applied these ideas to the central British national government culture department, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), for example, and found that it had a low status in comparison with other departments.

Longitudinal analysis can also be used to allow for an incorporation of how different states respond to a combination of national and international factors when making their policy decisions. Aronsson (2011, 46-8) has argued that the historical context within which national museums are functioning has important implications for state-museum relationships and the uses to which museums will be put, with these altering in the light of changes in the level of state development. Thus it might be anticipated that the political status of national museums would be greater in the early stages of state development or postrevolutionary change than it would be when states are well-established and have long periods of ideological stability (if not stasis) and accepted legitimacy behind them: the role of national museums in supporting the establishment of images of what the new nation-state is, and what it stands for, will be politically more acute in the former rather than the latter case. To establish the validity of such a view requires longitudinal analysis rather than the taking of snap-shots of particularly politically fraught periods. In a similar vein, the impact of international events can, and does, have significant implications for how governments will behave, and will affect what they perceive their limits to action are. The impact of this on the relationship of national governments to their national museums can be important not only for governments but also for the populations of nation-states, with national museums having the potential to reinforce established perceptions of national identity and meaning, or to change these to take account of new circumstances. If the financial support that governments give to their national museums stays at the same level (either absolutely or relatively) or noticeably declines during periods of national and international tension then the assumption would tend to be that governments do not consider that these museums have any significant role to play in national affairs, certainly not politically. If, on the other hand, levels of financial support grow then the assumption would be that national museums are seen to have a positive function to fulfil, and this can only be done if the resources are made available to allow this to be effectively undertaken. Thus empirical analysis provides the basis for examining all these concerns.

While the identification of the importance of empirical analysis to inform any understanding of the national status of museums is reasonably evident it is quite another matter to establish the evidence base that can be used to answer the questions that have been asked: specific expenditure data on museums is not the easiest thing to find in most national accounts and budgets. This in itself is indicative of the relatively low status that the museums sector as a whole has in most countries and reflects the absolutely (and relatively) small amounts of money that governments spend upon them. For this reason a brief examination of national museums funding in the UK, where expenditure data is reasonably easy to obtain, is used to illustrate what can, and cannot, be said about these museums in terms of their political status for national governments at a preliminary level. The analysis that is provided here is by no means a complete one and should be seen as a starting-point for more detailed investigations of how the UK's national museums are ascribed political meaning, with this also establishing a starting-point for the analysis of the status of national museums within other political systems as well. Table 3.1 provides a summary of the public expenditure on the museums sector in England that was undertaken by the DCMS between 2001/2002 and 2013/2014, with this expenditure being divided between the grants that were given to the 15 national museums and galleries which the government directly funded, and the more general forms of financial support that the government provides to the rest of the museums sector through the grants that it makes which are passed on to local authority, university, private and community museums through the means of state supported quasi-governmental organisations (in the UK these are known as Non-Departmental Public Bodies).

The focus in this Table on England points to one key factor above all others - the national cultural department in the UK does not provide direct financial support for the national museums and galleries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: responsibility for these was devolved and/or delegated to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies as part of the constitutional reforms undertaken by the Labour Party in the late 1990s. The consequence is that there is now a clear hierarchy of status between those museums that are truly 'national', intended for the people of the entire country and directly funded by the national government, and those that are regional (or 'provincial') ones. Even though these regional museums and galleries

Table 3.1 National government expenditure on museums in England, 2001/2- 2013/14


National Museums

Museum Support






















































All figures in ?000

All figures expressed in real terms (2008=100): inflation figures derived from United Kingdom National Accounts: The Blue Book (various years, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan)

Figures calculated from:

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Consolidated Resource Accounts (Various years, London, DCMS)

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, AnnualReportandAccounts (Various years, London, DCMS)

Arts Council England, Grants-in-Aid and Lottery Distribution Annual Report and Accounts (Various years, London, Arts Council England)

have a national status in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the fact that the national government of the whole of the UK does not directly fund them indicates that they are not seen in the same light as the other (UK-wide) national museums and galleries. Indeed, the funding received by the UK nationals is directly negotiated between the individual museums and galleries concerned and central government, and this is undertaken through mechanisms that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish 'nationals' do not, and legally and constitutionally cannot, take part in. At the very least this adds a degree of peripherality to these latter museums and galleries - with their funding being determined at arm's- length to the centre of national government - and effectively makes their political status for the nation as a whole somewhat tenuous at best, even if they carry real significance and meaning for their own countries.

A second point to note from Table 3.1 is that, in real terms, there is no consistency in terms of the overall allocation of national government money to either the nationals that they have responsibility for, or the wider museums sector as a whole. Some of this can be accounted for by the small size of this national expenditure in absolute terms: while average annual expenditure of just under ?399 million over the period from 2001 to 2014 appears to be a great deal of money it only takes one major piece of expenditure to dramatically skew the overall figures. Given that there have been major redevelopments of the Tate Gallery (costing national government ?50 million), the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum (where the development of the new Darwin Centre between 2006 and 2008 cost national government ?78 million) in the last 15 years, the variability that there is in overall expenditure can be relatively easily explained with rises and falls in expenditure being directly affected by individual large-scale capital projects. Alongside this, however, there is the clear effect of the economic downturn in Britain in 2008 (matched in many other Western countries) which now appears to be feeding into declining overall support from central government for both the nationals and the wider museums sector. Given the relatively small amounts of money that each of the nationals receives - in 2013/2014 the British Museum, for example, was given direct grant-aid of just under ?44 million, and the Geffrye Museum almost ?1.8 million (DCMS, 2014, 128) - any loss of income is likely to have important consequences for what they can do and how they can do it. As the national museums are frequently the subject of political encomiums about their importance, not only for the UK but also, in terms of their claimed universal significance, for the entire world, the limited financial support that they receive raises questions about whether this verbal support is merely rhetorical rather than anything more meaningful. This is particularly marked when it is noted that total central government expenditure, in real terms, in the UK in 2007/2008 was a little over ?574 billion in comparison with museums expenditure in the same year of ?439.57 million - 0.00077% of the total amount spent by central government.

Viewed in these crude financial terms the national museums sector in the UK is either remarkably cheap to run or it is not seen to be as worthy of support as many other areas of public expenditure. Given that the latter covers everything from national defence to education to health care to social security this may not be surprising, particularly given the political significance that is attached to these areas of 'high' political status in comparison with the seemingly 'low' status (Bulpitt, 1983) that is attached to the museums sector. Table 3.1 does not, it is fair to say, take account of the expenditure on museums that is undertaken by local authorities, for example, and thus significantly underestimates the total

support that is given to the system by public organisations, but in terms of the symbolic role that is assumed to be attached to national museums it would appear that an annual expenditure of around ?6.49 per capita a year is a very small amount to pay to maintain them. It is in this light that comparative figures may be revealing given an assumption that there is a certain element of political complacency about the role and importance of museums in the UK as a result of their long established and entrenched legitimacy within the political system as a whole, with this not appearing to be supported by the provision of large-scale financial support for them. A comparison with the figures in Table 3.2 detailing public expenditure that is made by the Scottish Parliament on their own national museums and galleries, and their contribution to the more general museums sectors in Scotland over the same time-period of 2001/2002-2013/2014 can serve to start this comparison.

Table 3.2 Scottish government expenditure on museums in Scotland, 2001/2- 2013/14


National Museums

Museum Support






















































All figures in ?000 •Estimates

All figures expressed in real terms: 2008=100: inflation figures derived from United Kingdom National Accounts: The Blue Book (Various years, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan)

Figures calculated from:

National Museums Scotland, Annual Report and Accounts (Various years, Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland)

Museums Galleries Scotland, Directors' Annual Report and Financial Statements (Various years, Edinburgh, Museums Galleries Scotland)

The Scottish Government, Draft Budget (Various years, Edinburgh, The Scottish Government) The Scottish Government, The Scottish Budget (Various years, Edinburgh, The Scottish Government)

While, not surprisingly, the total expenditure in Scotland is considerably smaller than for the UK nationals as a whole the Scottish Government does appear to spend more, in relative terms at least, on their national museums and galleries than the government of the UK spends on the nation's equivalents: 0.0010% of identifiable Scottish public expenditure. This fact could be taken to mean a number of different things - not least that the Scottish Government could be assumed to ascribe a greater importance for the nation to its' national museums than the government of the UK as a whole does. Such a claim, however, is not strictly tenable as the Scottish Government has limited, if any, control over expenditure on social security and defence - which are major component parts of total public expenditure in the UK - and so the comparison is not entirely fair on either party. A more direct comparison of museums expenditure in the two countries can be obtained by comparing the total amounts of money that are spent by national governments purely on the museums sector as a proportion of each other's expenditure. This demonstrates the comparative weighting that is attached to museums expenditure in each case, and can be assessed in terms of the population size of each country: if, for example, Scotland had 10% of the population of the UK as a whole then it might be thought to be appropriate in equity terms if it spent 10% of the amount that the UK spent on the museums sector. In practice, on the basis of the 2011 Census, Scotland has 8.38% of the total population of the UK.

The comparison shown in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 certainly demonstrates how small is the amount that is spent on supporting the rest of the museums sector in both the UK as a whole and in Scotland specifically, and how relatively small absolute changes in expenditure in the English case shift the ratio of support between the two systems quite considerably. The figures in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 could, again, be taken to show that the Scottish system is less generous to its national museums than is true for England and the UK as an entirety, as the average of Scottish expenditure of 6.64% of the English total is considerably smaller than population size might warrant by itself. On the other hand, however, other support by the central state in Scotland to the overall museums sector is running at an average of 7.41% of the English total over the period of 2001-2014 which is less, if not by much, than population size by itself might warrant. Of course, decisions about public expenditure are not made simply in terms of population size - even if national funding support to the Scottish political system is tied to population through the workings of the Barnett formula (Peele, 2004, 63) which provides for 12.5% of UK public expenditure to be undertaken in Scotland, and this is considerably larger than the actual population share that Scotland has. Using the Barnett formula figure reduces the relative share of expenditure on the national museums and galleries, and the level of general support to the overall museums sector, in the Scottish case as the Barnett expenditure ratio of 12.5% is far from being matched. In general terms it could be argued that the Scottish governments of the recent past have not seen financial support for the museums sector and their own national museums and galleries in as supportive a light as has been the case in England. Apart from such general conclusions, however, it is difficult to say more on the basis of these expenditure figures without having more specific information about how and why states and governments make their decisions about support for museums in comparison with their support for other areas of public expenditure which means that there is something of an analytical black hole in this area which the quantitative information contained in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 deepens rather than resolves.

To return to the original question for this section - are national museums politically important? - the answer must be multiple: it depends upon what is being examined. In terms of expenditure data, for example, they are certainly not over-endowed with resources in comparison with other policy sectors, neither are they central components of debates about levels of public expenditure (quite probably as a result of their relatively small size in comparison with other areas of expenditure). On the other hand, however, museums are persistently held up as being markers of national identity and symbols of national status and are often used as important elements for the exercise of cultural diplomacy (Nisbett, 2013). In each of these it is not that museums are important in themselves but, rather, it is the roles that they are utilised for which provides their importance and significance. In this respect the long-standing concerns about the instrumentalisation of museums and the museums sector as a whole have a firm basis in the realities of the politics of museums, with this concern being a reflection of the multiple uses to which museums can be put and their multi-functional nature rather than anything else. In this respect it is how and why national museums are utilised as they are which becomes important in the context of this chapter.

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