Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Impact of the Foot and Mouth Outbreak on Museums

  1.  The Area Museums Councils, the Museums Association, the Association of Independent Museums, and Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries have been collaborating to share information on how the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak is impacting on museums in rural areas. While museums are but part of a bigger picture we are concerned that there is a danger that their situation and the longer-term implications for the tourism industry needs to be made evident, given how important heritage attractions are in the total tourism business.

  2.  Museums that have been affected fall into three broad categories: those in the countryside; those in market towns; and those on the urban fringe within a close distance of exclusion zones.

  3.  There are 1,800 Registered Museums in the UK of which slightly more than half are independent museums; registered educational charities which receive little or no public subsidy and rely on admission income, retail and catering to sustain their operations.

  4.  They include significant regional institutions such as Beamish: The North of England Open Air Museum, the Weald and Downland Museum, West Sussex, Ironbridge Gorge Museum, the Almond Valley Heritage Trust, West Lothian, Kilmartin House, Argyll, and Bodelwyddan Castle Trust in North Wales. One fifth of the Designated Museums (those English museums recognised by central government as having pre-eminent collections) are independent museums, and have been to a greater or lesser extent affected by the outbreak.

  5.  The majority of museums, however, like 80 per cent of all tourism businesses, employ less than 10 people. Many run wholly or substantially on voluntary effort. They nonetheless make a significant contribution to the regional tourism industry. Like all rural tourist attractions, they are deeply rooted in their local communities and provide employment opportunities as well as a measure of community focus. While all have the potential to be seriously affected by the epidemic, the independent museums face the following additional difficulties:

    —  Because they include the function of preserving heritage assets they carry higher overheads that enable them to care for collections and make them available to the public.

    —  They need to retain specialist staff. It is not possible to engage a curator or museum education officer "off the shelf" so if specialist staff are made redundant they may be lost to the business permanently. Re-recruitment costs alone could have serious implications for a small business.

    —  This means that they invariably operate on smaller margins than other tourist attractions and therefore any substantial and sustained reduction in visitor numbers places them at greater risk of insolvency and permanent closure.

    —  They do not have the cushion of substantial financial reserves or the guarantee that comes with regular public subsidy. Nor are they part of larger organisations like local authorities, or national organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage that have the ability to maintain cash-flow, and off-set losses, at their rural properties with additional business at urban sites.

    —  Educational provision, especially to visiting schools, makes up a large part of the business, especially in the first part of the season. Thus they may have limited potential to compensate for losses early in the season by marketing and promotion in the second half of the season, by which time the epidemic will hopefully have ended.

    —  Most rural museums, even where they have some paid staff, depend heavily on volunteers. These are drawn from among the very farming and rural communities which are currently experiencing the business and personal anxieties resulting from FMD. This close integration with the community no doubt contributed to the extreme caution about opening in February and March on the part of many rural museums. Where they are now open, it may take some time before general confidence has reached the level where volunteers feel able to resume their former levels of support.

  6.  We estimate that UK rural and countryside museums that would normally have opened in March lost a total of around £2 million in revenue during that month as a result of remaining closed, as well as incurring a total of at least £500,000 costs on sites where precautionary measures had to be taken in respect of livestock holdings. These museums normally generate about 30 per cent of their total annual revenue in April and May. The current crisis—and especially earlier official advice to keep out of the countryside—has in many cases seriously damaged their potential for profitable operation for the current season, and most have very limited financial reserves.

  7.  While our immediate concerns have been for independent museums, we also remain aware that many local authority museums sustained heavy losses in terms of expected income during February and March. While not at risk of insolvency per se, local authority museum services are not statutory, and poor income performance during 2001-02 may ultimately force further budget cuts in services that are generally everywhere subject to strong financial pressures.

  8.  For both independent and local authority museums the most important immediate issue is marketing and PR support to win back visitors and income lost during the initial period. In most cases museums do not have funds available to embark on serious remedial marketing on their own account: marketing budgets having already been substantially spent—abortively—on early season marketing and on events that have had to be cancelled.

  9.  There are some encouraging indications that in many cases the level of visits over the Easter period has been higher than had at one stage been feared. The Area Museums Councils will nevertheless continue to monitor the situation for all museums closely on a monthly basis.

April 2001

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