Evaluate the impact of the marketisation of leisure upon the future of museums (in the UK).

Isaac Hunt

To understand and measure the impact of marketisation of leisure, a brief history of the origins and growth of museums will be useful. Not only to show what they were originally created for, but how they have evolved. Some of these changes will be considered, whether as positive or negative effects and their implications for the continuation of museums in their present form. This will help give a guide to what may happen in the future, extrapolating current trends and policies to offer some assumptions about the "traditional" and "modern" museums prospects.

The traditional perspective of what constitutes a museum has changed considerably over the past 30 years. The first true public museum to open was the British Museum, in 1753, created from earlier private collections, intended as a national, secular, historical and educational purpose. (Hewison 1987: 86) New museums, modelled on this first large public collection continued to open, predominantly through the nineteenth century. By 1914 there were some 300 museums founded in local and provincial towns.(Hewison 1987: 87) These were supported by local authorities through the rates and were considered to have not only educational value but a social and economic value as well. Their social function was thought to be as a distraction to the working population and to raise the moral tone of urban areas. The economic purpose was seen as a focus for design, technology and manufacturing. Today, all manner of establishments are termed museums, usually under the guise of industrial or heritage museums. In the 1980s a new museum opened every two weeks to give by 1990; 41 heritage and 461 industrial museums. (One Foot in the Past 1996)

The functions of the Victorian museum compared to heritage and industrial museums  have changed in several ways. The moral or social purpose has perhaps changed to an entertainment objective; the economic purpose evolved to profit making and employment as in the private sector rather than public spending creating jobs; the educational value still holds but the presentation has changed beyond all recognition. 

This is the key aspect of the marketisation of museums and the marketisation of leisure as a whole. The success of this process is obvious given the number of new museums opening, the traditional often re-invented as tourism centres rather than for the use of local people. Where conservation, preservation and education were the sole objectives, very often entertainment has taken its place. This is one of the major local impacts of marketisation, a possible conflict of interests between the market and community. 

However, these are changes that could be seen at first light as positive . The traditional industry that once supported an area now, even though re-invented, creates employment for the same workforce. This use of tourism as a tool for urban (and even sometimes rural) regeneration has been a key policy of Government. 

"....during the last twenty years, cultural policy has become an increasingly significant component of economic and physical regeneration strategies in many western European cities...." (Bianchini, F. & Parkinson,M. 1993:1) 
The Conservative Government in the 1980s introduced many schemes concentrated on urban regeneration, the key sites of many of the new heritage museums. Urban Development Grants, an input of finance to attract private investment, had by 1986 grown to £86 million.( Bianchini, F. & Parkinson,M. (1993) This scheme was renamed City Grant and followed other policies such as Enterprise Zones to lead to today's city development corporations.

The future may see a backlash against such schemes because of several factors that could be seen as weaknesses in building and planning in this way. The biggest criticism might be that this method is too in tune with the economy; when the economy is depressed, anything  that holds the promise of jobs is allowed. The prime example of this would be the conversion of Plymouth's Royal William Yard to become a shopping centre. The alternative scheme was to create a heritage centre and some aspects and displays of "history" are to be retained in the design of the shops.

Planning regulations today, simplified in a development corporation's area, allow the use of buildings for almost any purpose given that the original facade remains.This might be seen in the future as non-planning! Little thought is given to the infrastructure around such attractions, whether shopping which could be called leisure and thus part of the marketisation of leisure, or heritage sites. The last criticism which might be levelled against regeneration policies is that the speculation of private investors has become the basis for our planned environment. 

The policies of private enterprise mentioned above have lead to a reduction of public funding for museums generally, and the freezing of museums and galleries art purchasing grants. (Hewison 1995:268) This may lead to a number of works of art being sold overseas or to private investors. More importantly, when heritage becomes a commercial activity, management makes judgements on what is deemed suitable to present. This decision could actually start to define our heritage; as could the very exhibits themselves.

 As Hewison points out:

 "Museums have become the new patrons of art. This has not only  affected the shape of the art market, it has affected the nature of the art produced, which is conceived on the monumental scale of the institutions  for which it is intended. Museum directors are high priests in the religion of  culture, and often behave like them." ( Hewison 1987:85) 
With less public money available, the long standing tradition of free entry to national museums as an act of popular education ceased in the 1980s. Three institutions, The British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery held to this policy and saw their visitor numbers increase dramatically. Others saw theirs decline by 40% (Hewison 1995:269). 

The most dramatic changes were seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, advertised later as "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached".  Promotional displays of the Sock Shop and Burberry's were allowed in the museum and space hired out to private exhibitions who charged for entry. 

Denys Sutton, a long time supporter of Margaret Thatcher thought these policies of marketing and commercialism had gone too far: 

"It is an error to believe that a museum is comparable to a business: it is not required to make a Profit. If state museums are to exist, then they should be properly funded."( Sutton1989:67)
This snapshot illustrates what might be the future for all museums. Critically, not only has the staffing changed to more catering and merchandising personnel and less for curatorial purposes, the space allowed for exhibits must have reduced to make way for shops and cafes. 

This is following patterns emerging throughout the 1980s and throughout the whole of society. Shopping becoming part of the leisure industry, museums, like many other places, laid out with commercial practice foremost. Museums thus becoming more like department stores than museums, shopping and using restaurants considered more important for "a good day out" than the visit itself. This can only be linked to the way museums are funded, unable to resist the dependency on commercial activities and becoming linked to a new culture; that of fun. The marketing and presentation has changed towards interaction with the displays, the Science Museum a prime example where you can take part with the displays. Perhaps what is for sale has become part of the displays or exhibits now. The television program "One Foot in the Past" compared the souvenir business as being similar to the Victorian grand tour, people bringing back souvenirs almost as trophies. Organisations such as the National Trust have reinvented heritage buying, their turnover approaching £18 million in 1996. English Heritage sold £4 million of teatowels and the like.

One significant prospect for the future is the level of donations to the arts. The Independent on Sunday reports that 90% of all money given to the arts in the United States is donated by individuals, there being far less dependency on public subsidy. This amounts to £9 billion a year. In Britain business contributes a mere £90 million; there is no record of individual donations as the figure is not regarded as significant. The difference between the two countries is simply that donations in the United States are tax deductible and the organisations there are allowed further tax relief on the donation. Only 50% of British museums are registered as charities and potentially eligible for tax concessions, the rules allowing donations to be considered for tax relief are complicated and gifts of works of art are only considered for tax relief if you die and wish to avoid inheritance tax. (Independent on Sunday February 1998) Legislation to allow tax concessions must be one major route to preserve museums in their traditional roles and appearances.

The last key to the future of museums funding, and perhaps therefore their continuing existence in their present format may lie with the National Lottery. A change of legislation or the franchise holder may see more monies given to museums. This could be linked to the recent change of government, who although applying existing budget requirements, may increase public spending.

In conclusion , the example of the Victoria and Albert museum demonstrates the effects of marketisation upon a public museum. Heritage and "new" museums are largely privately funded and are driven by different objectives than the traditional public facilities, although these are now being subjected to exactly the same motivations. These are the key observations of this study and gives some clues to the future of the industry that museums have become.

Our heritage has become just another commodity for public consumption, how it is displayed, and quite probably what is displayed, dependent on how profitable it might be rather than its educational or conservational value.
Even the buildings which could easily be claimed to be part of our heritage are being preserved only as a facade. Just as their contents are questionable as to their worth or authenticity, so are the buildings themselves, their frontages only being preserved.
This study raises the question that how heritage is "sold" and promoted is being used, if only coincidentally, to reinforce how government policy shapes society. There has been a political will involved to promote market values and consumerism, the museum and art galleries caught up in spending cuts and having to react in the only way possible to survive. This might be the only future for this "industry" unless tax allowances are altered or lottery or government allocations change. Perhaps one day we will see the department / museum superstore where we can buy the exhibits.

 back to guest pages
 back to full list of files