Funding of the arts and heritage

Written evidence submitted by The Blake Museum (arts 159)

1 ) About the Blake Museum, Bridgwater

1:1 The Blake Museum, Bridgwater, an Accredited Museum, was founded in 1926 by Bridgwater Borough Council. It is a local history Museum and the collections comprise material about Bridgwater and the villages in an area covering most of the Quantocks and a sizable chunk of the Somerset Levels. Other topics are Robert Blake, (1598-1657) the Duke of Monmouth and the Battle of Sedgemoor (1685), the local shipping industry, and brick and tile industry, local archaeology and medieval Bridgwater. There is a collection of more than 30,000 photographs.

1:2 The Museum was taken over by Sedgemoor District Council, when it acquired the Borough Council's assets in 1974, and was given up by them in April 2009 as an economy measure and the staff made redundant. The Museum building and contents were transferred to Bridgwater Town Council, who now own it outright and the day-to-day management is in the hands of the volunteers of the Friends of Blake Museum and Members of the Bridgwater and District Archaeology Society. We have an curatorial adviser from the Somerset County Council heritage staff. There is an honorary curator and two deputies with specific management tasks. Others have specific tasks such as organising the learning programme, organising the garden, organising the custodians' rota and managing the Museum shop. We are working to set up a Museum Trust to take over from the Town Council but this is nowhere near fruition.

1:3 The Town Council and Sedgemoor District Council jointly fund the Museum. In the year 2009-2010 it was around £80,000. For 2010-2011 it will be £50,000. Funding is assured for both the years until 2013, but whether at this level will remain to be seen. As well as funding the museum overheads, the money has been used for a major refurbishment of the building, done largely by volunteer labour. The Museum was closed February - May 2009 and November 2009 - April 2010 for this work to be done. This has included replacing a complete floor ravaged by death watch beetle, rewiring, decorating, installing CCTV and computer networks, devising new displays, improving the storage and starting a photograph scanning programme. The adjoining Town Mill which is part of the Museum complex was refurbished as a store with the long-term goal of restoring it as a working mill. The Museum is planned to close November 2010-April 2011 for more refurbishment and for work on cataloguing the backlog of the collection.

1:4 The Friends fund-raise for the Museum, paying for this year, a hearing aid loop system, picture conservation and water butts for the garden, and later some display cases.

1:5 We average around 23 visitors per day over a five day week of whom around 25% are children. In addition the Museum is used as an evening meeting room by the Friends, by the Bridgwater and District Civic Society and the Bridgwater and District Archaeology Society. About 30 people attend these meetings. We receive research queries by letter, email, telephone and personal visit, say five per week.

1:6 We average around ten volunteers per day in the building, and estimate that each puts in around four hours each or a total of 40 volunteer hours per day or 240 hours per six-day week. A number of the volunteers with specific curatorial or administrative tasks put in extra time at home. This is hard to quantify, but is probably in the region of 15-20 hours per week each additional to whatever time they are in the Museum

1:7 The Home page of the Museum has links to pages detailing the reports and minutes of the Town Council museum sub-committee, the Museum's online collection, the Museum Newsletter Blake News, published quarterly and a page for teachers. The Website of the Museum Friends has a news page which is a weekly blog of events written for the information of members and others.

1:8 The Museum was chosen last year to trial a localised version of the National Gallery's 'Take One Picture...' Scheme for schools. We selected an oil painting of the last Bridgwater-built sailing ship the ketch Irene of 1906. This was highly successful with around 450 children coming into the Museum during the summer term. Next year's theme is Bridgwater Castle.

2) Answers to the Committee’s Questions

2:1 What impact recent, and future, spending cuts from central and local Government will have on the arts and heritage at a national and local level;

2:1:1 The impact of the cuts of 2008-9 was nearly to cause the Museum to close completely. It was only by heroic efforts that the collection was saved from being dispersed and the building sold. It is hoped that sudden future cuts will not be made since it will be impossible to complete the task we have set ourselves.

2:2 What arts organisations can do to work more closely together in order to reduce duplication of effort and to make economies of scale;

2:2:1 The Somerset County Council's Museum Development Officer publishes a monthly Newsletter which keeps the local museums in touch with each other, and provides news of things like grants.

2:3 What level of public subsidy for the arts and heritage is necessary and sustainable;

2:3:1 The Blake Museum is clearly a good example of the Prime Minister's Big Society concept, as can be seen for the amount of volunteers' unpaid time put in. But for the compact to succeed it should be accompanied by a measure of public subsidy to help cover the organisational overheads at the very least. The volunteers work for the public good as well as the satisfaction they get out of it, and public subsidy should be the means of recognising this.

2:4 Whether the current system, and structure, of funding distribution is the right one;

2:4:1 The one for the Blake Museum has worked well so far. But we are liable for Business Rates, due to the anomaly that Precepting Authorities, such as the Town Council, cannot claim a reduction for non-profit activities. We suggest an exemption for all Museum business rate bills of less than £10,000.

2:5 What impact recent changes to the distribution of National Lottery funds will have on arts and heritage organisations;

2:5:1 We are not able to comment on this.

2:6 Whether the policy guidelines for National Lottery funding need to be reviewed;

2:6 We are not able to comment on this.

2:7 The impact of recent changes to DCMS arm’s-length bodies - in particular the abolition of the UK Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council;

2:7:1 The demise of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council will have an effect on Museums Accreditation, for which it is responsible. The Accreditation system forces Museums to take stock on a regular basis of how they run, and is intended to flag up sloppy practice. If it goes it will undoubtedly have a baleful effect on the quality of what Museums achieve. Accreditation needs to be continued in some form.

2:7:2 The Somerset Museums' Development Officer had been of immense help to the Blake Museum over the past eighteen months and were the post to be abolished and not replaced with something similar, the small Somerset Museums will be left to fend for themselves.

2:7:3 We suggest the role of the County Museums Development Officers be funded at least, in part nationally and expanded to take on board some of the functions of the MLA so that local museums will not wither through lack of accessible expertise on best practice.

2:8 Whether businesses and philanthropists can play a long-term role in funding arts at a national and local level;

2:8:1 This is good in theory, but will often depend on the relative wealth or poverty of the business people or philanthropists at the local level, so the outcomes might be patchy

2:9 Whether there need to be more Government incentives to encourage private donations.

2:9:1 The present system of Gift Aid (for money) for private individuals and businesses might be extended to cover the donation of objects to Museums, which might otherwise go for auction. Objects accepted by the Government in lieu of Inheritance tax covers big-value estates only. Small estates are not covered.

September 2010