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National Media Museum: "will not close" - a report from the Select Committee (UPDATED)

In a 2½ hour session today of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee  at the Palace of Westminster on the ‘Future of the Science Group’, Ed Vaizey, under-secretary of state for Culture, Communications and Creative Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group (SMG) both unambiguously stated that Bradford’s National Media Museum would not be closed.

The session also highlighted the following key points:

  • The National Media Museum will  not be closed, but had been the potential closure target within the SMG
  • Ed Vaizey: NMeM ‘closure is not an option’ but ‘no change is not an option’
  • Ian Blatchford: ‘delighted’ to confirm NMeM will not close and that its future is secure. ‘Museums are not shutting’
  • No ‘rush to action’ before 2015/16
  • Introducing admission charges was not an option
  • Possible change of name away from National Media Museum
  • Imax and the cinema to be run as commercial ventures
  • A key temporary exhibition space to be restored to the NMeM
  • NMeM to have a greater focus on science and technology
  • New partnerships with local authorities, and science universities and colleges
  • Media Space key to driving visitors to Bradford

Update: The evidence from the meeting is now available here

During the session chaired by John Whittingdale MP, the two Bradford MPs Gerry Sutcliffe and Philip Davies and Manchester MP John Leech led the questions which were put to Vaizey, Blatchford and the heads of Bradford, York and Manchester city councils all of which had been actively campaigning on behalf of the museums in their areas.

 

Ed Vaizey

John Whittingdale started the session by asking Vaizey about the settlement that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport had secured from the Treasury in the current spending round which would come in 2015-16. Vaizey commented that the minister, Maria Miller, had got a good settlement of 5 per cent for the national museums which he stated gave some comfort and provided the opportunity for them to continue their work. This was coupled with a ‘package of freedoms’ designed to loosen the financial restrictions the museums operated under.

Gerry Sutcliffe questioned Vaizey on the media furore after a meeting held on 23 April between Vaizey and Ian Blatchford to specifically discuss the National Media Museum. Vaizey felt that the settlement offered the opportunity to ‘reboot’ the NMeM and regretted the three weeks of speculation which had caused widespread concern. He reiterated that he saw no North-South divided and regretted that the perception existed. He stated that the museums outside of London were ‘equally important’.

He stated that he would be prepared to act to facilitate a meeting in Bradford with key stakeholders keen to support the NMeM.

Philip Davies asked Vaizey about Blatchford’s quote wanting three world class museums and not four mediocre museums. Vaizey replied that his own ambition was to have four world class museums, but he expected the leaders of museums to take tough decisions. He backed Blatchford as an ‘excellent director of the Science Museum’ and was clear that ‘we can turnaround Bradford’ and he saw all four museums in the SMG as ‘world class’.

Asked why visitor numbers at the NMeM had dropped he said that ‘we need to look at the offer’ and stated that the Imax cinema should be run as a commercial cinema and the museum needed to ‘ensure that the collection engages’ particularly with young people. Its fundraising approach also needed to change. The suggestion of closure of the NMeM had been a wakeup call and he had been ‘overwhelmed’ by support for the NMeM. He emphasised that closure ‘is not an option’ and that the future of the museum was secure but ‘no change is not an option’.  Vaizey confirmed that he was talking with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) as a potential partner to help make things work better and to support the science side of the SMG.

 

Ian Blatchford

Ian Blatchford faced a stronger grilling and Blatchford answered the initial questions shakily before gaining confidence.  Philip Davies started the questioning by asking about his quote which suggested that one museum in the SMG might close.  Blatchford claimed that the quote had been based on a possible 10 per cent funding reduction and not at the actual 5 per cent agreed. His concern would have been that cuts at the higher level would have degraded all museums and would have reduced visitor numbers, the morale of staff and volunteers and impacted on fundraising as donors generally invest in success.

Asked about the decline in the NMeM’s visitor numbers he cited a number of factors which had impacted these such as the building work in the city centre, the loss of novelty of Imax and he called the change of name from National Museum of Photography, Film and Television to National Media Museum, a mistake which he felt did not clearly tell visitors about the museum’s content. He emphasised that visitor number were not the sole measure of the success of the museum.

Asked directly about which museum had been considered dispensable he confirmed that the SMG Board had its greatest attention focused on the National Media Museum. He said that when it had first opened the NMeM had a clear purpose and over time this had become less distinct. It was now to be focused much more on science and technology, which would ally it more closely with other museums in the SMG.

Blatchford denied that his quote and interview had been a flag-waving exercise to secure a better settlement. He had met with Vaizey directly to discuss the NMeM specifically so as not to affect staff and volunteers and to work out how to ‘reshape’ the museum. Details had been leaked which had generated a national campaign to save the museums in the Group. The £120,000 spent earlier this year on the new NMeM café had been proceeded with, not to have done so would have affected staff morale as staff were aware of the plan.

The future plan now that the 2015/16 funding was known was to explore all options with the minster and local authorities but there would be ‘no rush to action’.

Davies asked Blatchford to unequivocally confirm that the NMeM would not be closing and that its future is secure. Blatchford stated that he was ‘delighted to do so’.  He said that ‘museums are not shutting’.

Gerry Sutcliffe questioned further. Blatchford stated that there was now an ‘extraordinary’ period of opportunity and the end result would be four fantastic museums which would work as a group. Blatchford denied that there had been a period of deliberate managed decline at the NMeM. After the departure of the previous Director [Colin Philpott] he had asked the Science Museum deputy director [Heather Mayfield] run the museum. She was a passionate supporter of the NMeM and had a science background. Media Space would be a showcase for the NMeM and would help drive visitors to Bradford.

Questioned about the low number of overseas visitors to the NMeM of 8,000 against nearer 50,000 to other the other northern museums Blatchford described this as a ‘challenge’. More work was needed on getting visitors to Bradford city as well as to the nearby attractions of Haworth, Ilkley and Saltaire. The new City Park and Unesco City of Film would help with this.

John Leech asked Blatchford what lessons could be learned from elsewhere in the Group. Blatchford stated that a key metric was the net cost of the museum against visitor numbers and MOSI was the best performer with Bradford 20-30 per cent more expensive. Commercial partnerships would be explored to generate more income. Fundraising as a Group would help negate London-centric philanthropy and would ensure funds could be diverted to the northern museums.

With regard to programming Blatchford stated that the Group was looking to ‘long term serious programming’ rather than exhibitions that gave short term gain. This approach would be consistent across the SMG. In the context of the NMeM there was a need to restore a key temporary exhibition space which the museum was ‘severely lacking’.

 

City Council heads

Tony Reeves, Chief Executive of the city of Bradford, stated that the NMeM was ‘absolutely vital to the city’ and it was jewel in the crown of the city centre. The half-million visitors were ‘really important’ to the city. He confirmed that the city provided the museum buildings on two leases due to end in 2087 and 2097 on a peppercorn rent but he said that the city’s own government grant was being cut so any direct funding was unlikely. But, the museum’s presence supported the city’s key objectives of regeneration, education attainments and improving skills and it might secure support as part of these aims. Better marketing of the city and its attractions was needed.

Gerry Sutcliffe, asked Reeves about 2012 changes at the museum. Reeves stated that the museum Advisory Board had not been told in advance of management changes and had challenged Blatchford and the then chair Michael Wilson about this. The Board had been reassured that the purpose had been to address a ‘lack of confidence in the curatorial direction of the museum’. Media Space was seen as a way of promoting the Bradford museum and the Board had been ‘satisfied’ with the response it received.  The move out of the museum of the BBC studio had been a decision for the BBC and not related to any ‘managed decline’.

Reeves stated that the decline in visitor numbers was in part that the city did not offer enough of an attraction and that the bulk of overseas visitors were visiting family. The museum needed to reengage with local people which would bring overseas visitors in to the museum.

Reeves said that recent weeks had been a ‘difficult and traumatic experience’ but there were lots of positives. The response from the public had been phenomenal both locally and internationally and had shaken people out of the complacency that the museum would always be there. He felt that there was an opportunity for a fresh look at the NMeM by the SMG and to engage with the city council and local colleges.

 

Where now?

The SMG will work through the implications of the 5 per cent funding cut and an announcement regarding this will be made in the autumn. For the National Media Museum, the future is secure but it will have to work hard to boost visitor numbers, increase external funding and commercial revenue. The museum will focus more on science and technology in line with the rest of the SMG which, for a museum that has significant art photography holdings, may prove challenging. Partnerships with the local authority, university and college will reinforce the new focus.  

The Select Committee meeting was attended by Dr Michael Pritchard and Colin Ford CBE. There were no representatives from the photographic press or wider photographic community. 

Reported by Dr Michael Pritchard

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Comment by michaelg on July 3, 2013 at 11:29

To make science and technology the central focus of the National Media Museum, (the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television) is a somewhat questionable aim. The evolution and development of imaging technologies cannot be seen as separate and distinct from content. To focus solely on the scientific and technological development without an equal and corresponding importance being given to content, will in effect, extend and widen the gulf between science and and culture (culture in its widest sense). Museums and archives are repositories of our collective cultural identity. The Government through the NMM's Trustees are custodians of our visual history and one of its primary aims must be to bridge the space between science and culture. We owe this to future generations. I recently visited the National Technical Museum in Prague which concentrates solely on the technology. It was a somewhat dispiriting experience. I knew more about the photographic content of their 19th century material than the staff whose focus was entirely centred upon equipment and process. It would, if feel be an educative experience for the trustees and Mr Ed Vaizey to pay a visit to see the most likely outcome of setting the central focus in the proposed direction. There are many possible avenues and directions to take;  to explore future implications, within the digital domain that there is no longer any distinction or separation between images and text - all is now data - this cannot be seen or understood as bey separate and distinct from culture. The NMM is one of the Nation's most important depositories of our collective cultural memory and heritage. Its primary aim should be to conserve and to communicate to the nation the extent and richness of its holdings of images and to demonstrate how they give meaning to our lives and identity.

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