Entertainment & Arts

'Rebel' museums face funding blacklist

Sekhemka statue Image copyright AFP
Image caption This ancient statue of Sekhemka was sold last year

Museums that break guidelines on selling their collections face severe funding cuts, it has been announced.

The move follows controversial sales of Chinese ceramics from the Museum of Croydon and an ancient Egyptian statue from Northampton Museum.

Now 10 bodies, including Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, have said they will not work with museums who follow suit.

They called such sales "a breach of trust with the public".

The announcement formalises the sanctions levelled against Croydon and Northampton after they sold off items against the advice of the Museums Association (MA).

The MA withdrew accredited status for Northampton Museums, one of its founder members, after Northampton Borough Council put its ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka up for auction last year.

As a result the museums lost out on funding grants, including £240,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The sale itself raised £15.8 million, some of which went towards a major extension of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

Image copyright Croydon Council
Image caption Croydon council raised £8m towards redeveloping Fairfield Halls through its sale

Croydon council, which sold off 24 Chinese ceramics from its Riesco Collection in 2013, resigned from the MA after being told it would face disciplinary action.

As a result of those incidents, the MA tightened up its ethical code and started talks with funding bodies to create a "joined-up response" to those selling important objects.

Ten organisations have signed up, including some of the largest funding bodies for museums. They are:

  • Arts Council England
  • Heritage Lottery Fund
  • Museums Association
  • National Museums Directors Council
  • The Art Fund
  • Association of Independent Museums
  • Museums Galleries Scotland
  • Northern Ireland Museums Council
  • Welsh Museums Federation
  • The National Archives

In a joint statement, the organisations said they were "concerned that a growing number of organisations are considering selling items from their collections for financial gain".

"Museum collections... represent an extraordinary act of generosity from one generation to another," the statement went on.

"It is clear that even when legally owned by museum governing bodies, they are primarily held in trust as cultural, not financial, assets.

"The unethical sale of items from museum collections constitutes a serious breach of trust with the public, supporters of museums and donors who have entrusted items to museums for perpetuity."


Analysis: Will Gompertz, arts editor

The joint statement represents a collective wrap over the knuckles for those local councils which have already sold off artworks in their collections. It also acts as a stern word of warning for those who might be considering such action in the future.

It contains two specific threats. The first is expulsion from the Museums Association for - it says - "breaching public trust". The second - which will probably be more keenly felt - is a bar on being able to access funding from the likes of Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery fund.

But the prospect of losing out on grants worth - perhaps - a few hundred thousand pounds - might not be enough to deter financially beleaguered local councils. Many have seen their core budgets cut, while watching the value of their local museum collections soar thanks to a booming global art market.


Falling income

Museums and galleries have come under increasing pressure as a result of the economic downturn and austerity cuts.

The MA's own cuts survey found that 52 percent of museums experienced falling income last year, with 21 percent forced to cut opening hours.

Local authority-run museums and national institutions were particularly badly hit, it said.

The financial pressure has forced many to seek new forms of income. But funding bodies are making it clear that plugging the gap by selling off precious collections will not be tolerated.

Arts Council England and the Museums Association say they will remove accreditation for anyone found to have breached standards for managing public collections, making it harder for them to qualify for funding.

The National Museum Directors' Council added it would not enter into any partnership activity, including loans of artworks and artefacts, with an offending museum.

Scott Furlong, director of Arts Council England, said: "The UK's collections are a priceless cultural treasure. They are built on a shared understanding of the importance of passing on a rich picture of our past and present to each generation.

"That is why it is so important that we make this joint statement of support for the importance of managing our collections in an ethical and responsible way and are very clear about the consequences for those who choose not to do so."

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