Top Museums face £150M+ repair backlog, say Government reviews

Two strategic reviews of the Museums sector, published on 14th November, draw attention to the dire state of maintenance and repair of many of the nation’s museums and galleries and may force Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England to review their long-time refusal to support routine maintenance.

One report concerns the top 16 directly-funded museums and galleries including the British Museum, British Library, Tate Gallery, Imperial War Museum and Royal Greenwich Museums, and the other – the Mendoza Report – the others.

At one [unnamed, top-16] museum, an entire gallery was closed recently due to water ingress and damage to the roof” says one review.  “At the 2015 spending review, the museums collectively identified £142.9m for 2016/17 to 2020/21 in urgent or pressing maintenance repairs, although this may have been cautious or an underestimate, and does not include desired improvements.”

The museum sector itself identified a £150M backlog – in 2004 – so it is hardly a surprise if an estimate of a £142M backlog for a mere sixteen, 11 years later, is an underestimate.

The sector’s obsession  – and that of its sponsors – with ritzy new facilities and exhibitions comes in for criticism in the same report.

Quite often those providing donations or funding from arts, culture and heritage sources or corporate sponsors will only allow capital expenditure to be allocated to public facing elements.  The lack of sufficient maintenance of building fabric and services, offices and other non-public facing operations is creating significant risks.  These risks represent an underfunding of the infrastructure and operations which have the potential to materially and adversely affect otherwise efficient operating models. It is difficult to determine how significant efficiencies can be made or money invested elsewhere until more of this critical work is done. The sponsored museums need to reconsider what can be funded from reserves, endowments or other funding.”

Museums and galleries have long been a concern to Maintain, particularly as the sector’s ambitious management tends to spend its money on its collections and attention-seeking exhibitions and consistently fails to devote the funds needed to keep their (often historic) buildings properly maintained.

Maintain has seen some spectacular lapses in basic maintenance, for example, in Glasgow, whose Museum of Modern Art (illustrated here) left an overflow running for so long that a Corinthian column was covered in mould and ferns for two years, until Maintain intervened.  The City’s Burrell Collection had to be closed after its award-winning 1980s building suffered from repeated water ingress and is now being repaired at an eye-watering cost of £66M.

The Museums Association has responded that “the report recognises the severe funding difficulties experienced by many museums, therefore it is disappointing that the government has failed to identify any new resources or capacity to improve the sustainability of the sector. The government’s own figures show that local authority funding for museums in England in 2016 was 31% lower in real terms than in 2010. This dramatic reduction in core funding has resulted in museum closures, reduced opening hours, the loss of museum expertise and low morale.”

The reports will also make uncomfortable reading for both Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, whose policies – never to make any grants for maintenance, only repairs – have in our view contributed to the present crisis.  The reports’ recommendations imply that both bodies will have to look again at these policies.

HLF is urged by the Mendoza report to “focus its museums funding on capital projects with a significant impact, whether major transformation or much-needed repair of valuable buildings. It should consider how to interpret ‘additionality’ in the contemporary context where museums need to use investment to tackle buildings conservation and maintenance backlogs, attract and maintain new audiences, and generate new funding streams.”

HLF has responded by saying how wonderful its funding has been for the museum sector, adding that the Mendoza Review will provide “important context as we consult on and develop our next strategic funding framework starting in April 2019.

HE is said to be going to “work with ACE [Arts Council England] and HLF to review the maintenance and conservation issues for museums located within listed buildings, and how best to support them.”

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