Museums overlooked

December 5, 1997

University museum collections of national and international importance are at risk because of "severe" funding problems, according to the Museums and Galleries Commission.

Giving evidence recently to MPs studying the Dearing report's implications for the structure and funding of university research, Jeremy Warren, assistant director of the MGC, expressed "extreme disappointment with the one and only reference" to university collections in the main Dearing report.

In its submission to the Dearing inquiry, the commission had expressed "serious concern" about the state of such collections.

Mr Warren said Dearing concentrated exclusively on university museum collections as public amenities. "This emphasis gave a false impression, as well as a dangerous one, at a time when universities are increasingly forced to scrutinise and justify every element of their expenditure. The Dearing report fails to understand that university museums exist not only to serve the wider public but also contribute directly to their institutions' teaching and research effort," Mr Warren said.

University museums are a source of prestige and pride that contributes to the quality of life of those within an institution. To many outside, they are an institution's most visible and public face.

There are about 400 university collections, which the MGC said include some of Britain's "most important" natural science collections and "outstanding" fine and decorative art collections. However, only 87 collections are registered with the MGC.

The commission would like to see the number increased, as it would raise standards of collection maintenance. The MGC recognised, however, that registration "requires universities to allocate services to museums that not all universities have at present".

The commission said "almost all university museums face severe funding problems, which in some cases could threaten their survival". It would like the funding of university museums to be rethought. Most receive all or part of their funding from the funding councils through block grants to institutions. A few with collections of national importance receive additional "non-formula funding".

Non-formula funding is valuable, but the amounts allocated do not cover the full costs of caring for and exhibiting collections of national or international importance, the commission said. It also said that there are institutions that could make a good case for such funding but do not receive it. "These factors create tensions because they mean that museums have to compete for their funding against mainstream university departments."

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