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Sunday, 16 June 2013

What the frack is going on with SMG?

Having recently returned from my holiday (hey even Ministers of Curiosity need time off) there is only one question on my mind: what the frack is going on with the Science Museum Group?

It all appears to have started with an article in the Manchester Evening News claiming that the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester was under threat from the big bosses of the Science Museum Group (SMG). MOSI has only recently joined SMG in 2011 after a round of government funding cuts. Closing one of SMGs northern museums (the Media Museum in Bradford, MOSI in Manchester and the Railway Museum in York) is just one of the options SMG is considering addressing its enormous budget deficit.

The outcry from this announcement has been enormous in the museum community. Some have pointed out that a strong North-South divide has been dredged up in the ensuing finger pointing. Why aren’t London museums closing? Why is it only the North that must suffer?

The Museums Association had a sniff around as well to see if the story that the Evening News was reporting had any legitimacy. The answer is, well yes. The statement from Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford that started all the arguments came as a response to an additional 10% proposed cut in government spending for museums, “I would rather have three world class museums than four mediocre ones.’

I think it’s probably worth pointing out that a) the Science Museum Group could well sell on one of their museums rather than closing it and b) maybe I have missed something, but why are we focusing on MOSI here? Where did anyone say the Manchester site is the one that would be closed down? To be honest, I’d be more nervous if I was the National Media Museum. MOSI has an enormous amount of community support and impressive visitor numbers. The NMeM has…well it has the lowest visitor numbers in the group and shares specialties with the core collections in London. In fact, the Science Museum planning to open not one but two galleries based around media technology: the Information Age Gallery and the ‘Media Space’ specifically meant to show off the NMeM’s collections.

Plans for Media Space at the Science Museum 
I cannot help but wonder if the announcement wasn’t actually a brilliant piece of strategy on the part of Ian Blatchford. Sure, people are now vilifying him and the big bad South Kensington museum, but he had to do something to get SMG noticed. We have now arrived at the point where spending cuts are biting not only regional museums but the nationals as well. That’s not to say the past several years haven’t been terrible for each museum in the sector, but we are starting to see real consequences for even the most established of museums.

But why is the Science Museum suffering more than its South Kensington neighbours? Probably for the same reason the Royal Institution is always under threat. Science is just not sexy to funders. You can’t possibly compare the amount of corporate funding somewhere like the National Gallery or the V&A receive to the Science Museum. And yes you can talk about mis-managing money or whether MOSI should have been brought on in the first place. But at the end of the day, there’s only one culprit here and it’s not Ian Blatchford. Maybe now the government will listen when we say you cannot cut funding to the bone and ask for ever higher performance indicators. UK museums are being brought to their knees and the façade of business as usual is starting to crack.

This is not to say we in anyway agree to the idea of closing any SMG sites- only to say that the blame lies with the relentless cuts for the arts. Something has to change. At the Ministry we love anything that gets people talking about museums but don’t waste your breath on the big bad SMG. Get out there and do something about it- sign the petitions, use the twitter hashtags (#savemosi), talk to your MPs, and visit your local museums as much as you can. I for one am happy to see SMG all over the news. Maybe people will finally start to see that something needs to be done.

Petitions to the HM Treasury can be found here:

If you want to read more, we would recommend this piece in the Guardian by Alice Bell and Kieron Flanagan

And now we brace ourselves for a torrent of jokes at the Science Museum’s expense at the next Museums Showoff….

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