Protect our heritage: seminar report

Prospect seminar discusses how to protect our heritage

Prospect members and guests from heritage organisations across the UK gathered in London in April to discuss the impact of austerity measures and debate how to defend the sector in the tough times ahead.

The union’s booklet, ‘Heritage in a Cold Climate’ was launched, containing the findings of a survey of members in heritage.

Sombre reading

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said the report made sombre reading and contained some deeply disturbing figures – funding cuts of 15% announced in 2010 – as high as 32% in English Heritage – and the core budget down from 1.4bn to £1.4bn over four years.

“Those numbers in themselves don’t illustrate the consequences,” he said. “What does is the voice of the people who try to manage these vital contributions to our national life in those circumstances.”

The report had highlighted falling morale, people having to do more with less and a drain on skills as well as the deterioration of heritage assets. Policymakers needed to understand the impact of the destruction cuts were bringing in a number of areas.

The economic case for heritage was clear, said Clancy. The coalition may have a “conservative” core, he added, “But it’s difficult to see what exactly they are conserving of our national wealth when these critical organisations and the people who work in them can be so easily discarded.”

He welcomed the finding that 58% of the 900 survey respondents would still recommend a career in a sector despite it being “torn asunder by austerity.”

Prospect ‘helpful’

Maurice Davies, former head of policy and communications at the Museums Association, said Prospect’s report was a “really helpful contribution”, in particular the case studies at the end, which showed the differences between different organisations.

The MA’s own annual surveys, three years running, had shown the impact of cuts on both publicly funded and independent museums. In 2012-13, half had a cut in overall income, and a quarter of over 10 per cent, on top of previous cuts.

Over a third had cut staff, over a fifth by more than 10 per cent, and almost half had increased the number of volunteers and interns. “Of course this is having an impact on service delivery – in some cases quite dramatic reductions in opening hours,” he said.

However, after this intensity of cuts, in some places the position was starting to stabilise. Most were focusing on two key things – generating income and raising funds. But almost half favoured developing a different relationship with audiences and seeking innovative ways of working.

Despite the problems, there was a positive sense of museums getting loser to audiences. Research showed that 53 per cent of adults had visited a museum in the past year compared to 42 per cent ten years ago, representing 4 million extra adults.

He highlighted the association’s recent report, ‘Museums change lives’, which had shown the social effect of museums on people’s wellbeing.

Fairness needed

Helen Goodman, shadow minister for culture, media and sport, said Prospect’s report demonstrated the impact of cuts “very clearly and concretely at the display case face.”

“It’s obvious that good staff are essential to the public having good experiences of heritage, culture and the arts,” she said. “It means being able to recruit the right people at the right time, afford for people to update their skills, maintain morale and give them personal and financial stability.”

Within the funding envelope set, a future Labour government would ensure fairness was at the heart of the relationship between central and local government and would end the biases against the poorest areas.

Unpaid interns

Gus Baker, of Interns Aware and entertainment union BECTU, said access to jobs in heritage for many young people was very difficult because of the growing use and reliance on unpaid interns.

Such internships were overwhelmingly unpaid and based in London, excluding people growing up elsewhere, who did not have parental support.

Baker said the solution was collective bargaining by trade unions to persuade employers to at least pay the minimum wage. Intern Aware had also run some successful court cases to get interns paid.

Economic dynamism

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, said that while recognising the challenges of austerity, the question for his organisation was how best to respond.

It had worked with local authorities, focusing on two themes

how to make better use of existing assets to build capacity of communities
models of development to make places economically vibrant.

A modest project with the Heritage Lottery Fund had explored how heritage could play a more central role in discussions about increasing their localities’ economic dynamism.

He said he associated Prospect with “positive messages and problem-solving”. As well as publicising damage to the sector, it had a role in encouraging the sector to be more ambitious, innovative and cohesive.

Heritage policy

Peter Hinton, Institute of Archaeology and a long-standing Prospect rep, pointed to a government vision statement in 2010 that believed “the historic environment is of enormous cultural social and economic environmental value. It can be a powerful driver for economic growth, attracting investment and tourism and driving regeneration.”

Sadly this had now disappeared from the website of the Department for Media, Culture and Sport. There was no government heritage policy at present, and one was essential, he said.

Local authorities also had a key role in archaeology, driving the planning process and protecting sites being excavated.

He stressed the need to try to influence the manifestoes of the political parties and urged the audience to back efforts by the Heritage Alliance to do this.

Hinton called for a coalition of heritage bodies to fight for a fair share of remaining resources.

Close tax havens

Comedian and campaigner Kate Smurthwaite rounded off the seminar with an injection of humour, alongside a serious message that making corporations pay their full share of tax, closing down tax havens and stopping illegal wars would be a better solution than “tearing down our museums”.