Manchester Matters: Museums Under Threat

Posted on June 5, 2013

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BREAKING: As this article went to press it was announced by Ian Blatchford, Science Group Director that “almost certainly” one of the three museums could close as a results of cuts. 

It was first with bafflement, then shock and absolute horror that I read the news this week that we might be losing a hat trick of museums for the north as the news that the Museum of Science and Industry (MoSI), the National Media Museum and the National Railway Museum were all under threat due to budget cuts.

Now, to be clear, none of the three museums has been definitively earmarked for closure but neither have any suggestions been made to secure their future. There is a danger that a north vs. south debate will flare up, but it shouldn’t as London’s Science Museum is struggling just as much if reports are anything to go by. Nor is it a particularly London-centric problem facing museums.

Popular figures in the industry like Professor Brian Cox (himself scathing about the prospect of closure) have been involved in promoting the museum’s various collections. And whilst it has languished behind the Manchester Museum and Art Gallery in some respects, it has always commanded respect and awe from its legions of visitors every year. Indeed, visitor figures increased from 568,000 in 2010 to 837,000 in 2012 (nearly twice the number of visitors compared to 2002). The recent redevelopment of the museum demonstrating that the refurbishment has enhanced MOSI’s space and appeal to the visiting public.

Originally opened in 1969, and moving to its present site in 1983, admission to MOSI has been free since 2001 under measures introduced by the then Labour government. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) claims on its website that free admission to a group of ‘national museums’ has resulted in a “marked” increase in visitor figures as well broadening the ethnicity of visitors and that crucially, “museums are central to the UK visitor economy”. So surely the thought of closing three so crucial to the economy of their cities would be counter-productive?

Originally forced into a merger with the Science Museum (itself owned by the National Science Group) to help secure the future of MOSI in 2012 after the withdrawal of DCMS funding, the National Science Group (NSG) is facing a severe cost deficit in 2014/15. It has been suggested that the northern museums would be jettisoned to make way for the funding to be used to keep the Science Museum afloat. D-day is 26 June when the Chancellor will set out his next round of funding. This may decide the nature of the proposals that the NSG will put to its board in the autumn to address this worrying deficit.

So, what options are open to the museums if government funding is squeezing them? MOSI has had an interesting array of special exhibitions charging a supplement for access. The Media Museum has its IMAX screen it charges for. Special exhibitions are a way of providing added value for visitors – perhaps MOSI could take over the now deserted Granada facility on Quay Street and maintain the old Coronation Street set. The other alternative is charging for entry.

The problem is, if MOSI to restart nominal charges, it goes against the principle of the idea of free access to national museums. And if the idea of national museums isn’t sustainable in the first place, it is endemic of a wider failure of the government to help fund access to learning and impedes regeneration. As with a previous Manchester Matters on the closure of Levenshulme Library (still, in part, ongoing) it seems there are systematic failures in place across the culture sector. The real risk is that if this trio of museums are allowed or choose to charge for admission, other museums may choose to follow suit and then the idea of free access for all is well and truly in danger.

Should access be free to museums of this nature? Personally, I think that government has a responsibility to provide access to museums for core subjects – science and history being two such subjects. The National Football Museum and National Media Museums could benefit from being subsidised but charge for entry allowing an economic model to sustain subjects of interest, but away from core curriculum subjects.

Were the site to close down, a serious gap would be left in the area with the absence of ITV’s Quay Street facility. This combined with the continued battering that Manchester’s retail areas face risk opening the wounds of the city up even further. MOSI’s placement has bolstered the regeneration of the Castlefield area into somewhere to be proud of. With the closure and removal of the site, you’d also risk losing the site of the first passenger railway station in the world. For Bradford, the Media Museum (earlier reviewed by us here) has been key to the redevelopment of the city centre, and York’s National Railway Museum forms a fundamental part of York’s tourism offering. More than that, all three museums carefully and contextually weave the place of their respective subjects within society in accessible and understandable ways.

MOSI’s collections are designated of national and international pre-eminence and the wealth of items it has on display (and squirreled away in its archives) are vital in providing hands-on access to items of historical and technological significance for the next generation of budding scientists. If control of MOSI were handed over to another party, or if it was to close altogether, would these items be guaranteed not to be sold off into hands of private collectors?

MOSI isn’t perfect. Some parts of the museum are long forgotten, or lie empty, as they are so far from the main building. But for generations of northerners, it has become as symbolic as Jodrell Bank for its inspiring tales of science and industry and gigantic exhibits. Manchester has got many museums to be proud of, but lets not let ourselves lose one of our most important. This recent news is devastating on educational, economic and social levels, not just for Manchester, but potentially for Bradford and York as well. These institutions must simply be saved.

Let battle commence.

You can join the petition to save MOSI over at the Manchester Evening News. Main photograph by Sean Marshall (Flickr)

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