The Arts and Humanities Re- search Board has launched a review of its Pounds 9 million annual funding scheme for university museums and galleries, a move that is likely to reveal chronic underfunding of the sector.
The board took over responsibility for the funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 1998. Michael Jubb, director of programmes at the AHRB, said funding through the scheme had not been reviewed in detail since 1995.
Fifteen institutions, housing 23 major museums and galleries, benefit from the scheme. They include several major museums, including the Ashmolean at Oxford and the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge.
But, said Mr Jubb, there are many more collections than are being funded through the initiative. The Museums and Galleries Commission estimates that there are 400 university collections, of which 90 have been officially designated as being of national and international importance.
The AHRB has written to universities. A spokesperson said: "It has been suggested that many of these other collections could make a powerful case for inclusion in the scheme. But without an increase in the total level of funding, this could be achieved only at the expense of reducing the funds provided to the current recipients."
The board is asking museums to identify areas where they urgently need extra support. Many are likely to highlight the task of checking their collection for works stolen during the Holocaust and the second world war.
At an MGC conference last week on restitution and repatriation, Timothy Mason, the commission's director, said: "It is clear university museums do not have adequate resources to carry out research on the provenance."
The MGC is hoping to allocate about Pounds 50,000 for such work, but Mr Mason added: "It really isn't enough... if further funds cannot be found we will have to accept that universities will take a lot longer to complete the task."
Duncan Robinson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, told the conference that his museum's funding had remained static at about Pounds 820,000 for five years. Last year this sum contributed just 48 per cent of its operating costs compared with 62 per cent in 1993-94.
Mr Robinson said he was strongly against the use of the AHRB's funding for work on provenance as it was essential for the day-to-day running of museums.
"What the sector badly needs is new, additional money to do the provenance work from government departments such as culture and education," he said.