Austerity starves our culture

Museums – and museum workers – have been hit hard by austerity policies and cuts. Clara Paillard outlines some of the key battlegrounds and considers what an alternative cultural policy might look like

May 16, 2019 · 12 min read
Photo by Synwell / Flickr

Museums are places of power. From their inception, many were based on collections gathered by the rich, including many artefacts stolen from British colonies (see page 64). To ensure the upkeep of those objects and give the people ‘access to the art’, the state created many national museums by Acts of Parliament and ensures most of their funding via grants-in-aid. It also provides funding to local museums and art projects via local authority funding, the Arts Council, the lottery and other public funding streams. From 2001, free entrance to national museums unquestionably widened museum audiences, though museums still tend to attract the middle and upper classes and museum employees are still more likely to come from a privileged and white background. Public investments in museums also contribute indirectly to the tourism industry and local economies. Many cities have seen a growth in their cultural industries as part of their economic policies.

But austerity policies over the past decade are increasingly having an impact. Deep cuts in grant-in-aid and local authority funding have contributed to the closure of at least 64 museums since 2010 and thousands of jobs have been lost. Also at the heart of Tory policies is the privatisation of services, and museums have increasingly outsourced part of their workforces to reduce costs. This can only mean an impact on workers’ conditions leading to an increase in precarious work. Museums have been forced to increase their fundraising and commercial activities. Cultural services are under pressure to become cultural businesses, driven by income generation rather than a public service ethos.

Is it too late for Labour to reverse the tide? What should the Labour Party do for our museums? Is it time for a new ‘renaissance’ strategy as under New Labour in 2001?

Austerity’s impact on museum workers

The range of public funding provided to the arts and museums is so wide that evaluating its impact is difficult, even more so when it comes to its impact on workers as many are precarious, part-time, self‑employed or freelance. Many local museums have closed due to cuts in local authority funding; others have made workers redundant, cut pay, changed their pension schemes or made other attacks on working conditions.

In National Museums Liverpool, a fifth of the workforce was made redundant as early as 2013, while many museums replaced paid staff with volunteers. Central government froze public sector pay, affecting most museum employees. In 2015 and 2016, National Museums Scotland and National Museums Wales decided to do away with premium payments for weekend work, prompting two high-profile disputes with workers and the PCS union, which represents 4,000 museums and heritage workers.

English Heritage’s status was changed to an independent charity in 2016 and it introduced winter closure to most of its heritage sites, with a large part of the workforce becoming seasonal. In late 2018, Historic Royal Palaces proposed to introduce a new scheme that would cut workers’ pensions, prompting Christmas strikes by PCS workers at sites such as the Tower of London.

The PCS culture group has fought successful campaigns to improve the conditions of the lowest-paid museum workers. Most national museums now pay the real living wage as a minimum hourly rate, but this doesn’t necessary apply to outsourced workers. Cleaners, porters, security guards, café and shop workers are often employed via trading companies like Tate Enterprises or British Museum Publications, or private contractors such as Securitas. Many of these services have been gradually privatised since the 1990s, with a sharp acceleration from 2010.


A number of major museum institutions have carried out controversial privatisations in response to budget cuts and austerity policies. By 2013, the British Museum had outsourced its cleaners, porters and repair workers to Carillion, prompting strikes by the PCS union. In 2014, the Imperial War Museum appointed the company Shield to run part of its visitor services. In 2015, it was the National Gallery that moved to outsource 400 of its workers, including the bulk of its gallery services and information staff. The dispute at the National Gallery, once again involving the PCS union, received particular attention as workers took more than 100 days of strike action in a high-profile campaign using protests and social media to galvanise support. One of their union representatives was dismissed at the beginning of the dispute and her reinstatement, together with protection of terms and conditions, brought an end to the dispute without stopping the privatisation.

In 2016, Shield collapsed, leaving the Imperial War Museum with no choice but to accept the buyer, Noonan, as their de facto contractor. In January 2018, it was Carillion that fell into bankruptcy with thousands made redundant in the private sector, public contracts collapsing and dozens of British Museum workers left in limbo. They organised protests calling for the work to be brought back in-house and for the British Museum to recognise privatisation was a failure. It took five months for the liquidator PricewaterhouseCoopers to find a company to take over the contract, while the British Museum refused to speak to workers and their union. Technicians transferred to CBRS, while cleaners and porters were taken over by TSS on temporary three-month contracts. By September, the company had reviewed all the contracts and shift patterns, with workers having to re-apply for their own jobs. Some of them had worked at the British Museum for over 20 years.

Precarious work

Privatisation often goes along with ‘precarisation’. There is no doubt that the only way a service can be delivered more cheaply by a private contractor is by cutting corners to the detriment of service, safety and workers. Precarious workers are often less unionised, more transient and, in London in particular, where most of the national museums are located, are often migrant workers. A number of Carillion workers at the British Museum didn’t speak English fluently, preventing them from understanding all the changes happening to their contracts. The British Museum also uses a large proportion of agency workers to look after its galleries, meaning that they can be dismissed on the spot and haven’t got access to some of the benefits their colleagues have, such as pensions or maternity pay.

At Tate, a portion of the gallery staff were recruited via zero-hours contracts operated by contractor Wilson James and were paid almost £3 less than their directly employed colleagues doing the same job. In 2015, workers managed to organise in the PCS and win union recognition with Wilson James before securing pay equity between private and public workers. However, in 2017, the contract was tendered again and awarded to a new company, Securitas, which had also won the contract at the National Gallery. Securitas immediately derecognised PCS at Tate, a move followed by the National Gallery with its remaining directly employed workers.

Power and funding

While budget cuts left local authorities having to pick between funding museums and libraries, child and elderly care or other local services, national museums embraced the austerity agenda rapidly and with little hesitation. This is unsurprising when most of these institutions are governed under the auspices of boards of trustees appointed by government. During the dispute at the National Gallery, Mark Getty, a descendant of the famous oil billionaire, was the chair while his colleagues included a former governor of the Bank of England. At Tate, it was Lord Brown, former CEO of BP chairing the board alongside the daughter of Rupert Murdoch. The British Museum is headed by former Financial Times editor and CBI director general Richard Lambert.

While happily privatising our museums, the same clique multiplied sponsorship deals with oil companies: BP at Tate and the British Museum, Shell at the National Gallery and the Science Museum. Museums workers resisting privatisations built a perhaps-surprising alliance with environmental campaigners aiming to challenge the power of capitalism. Art Not Oil, Shell Out Sounds, BP Or Not BP and Liberate Tate all included references to workers’ struggles in their artistic protests against ‘artwashing’. Museum workers utilised the creative protest tactics developed by the groups and integrated them into their picket lines with poets, performers and artists joining their struggle.

Privatisation and oil sponsorship are two sides of the same coin and illustrate perfectly what is wrong with austerity museums. The group Culture Unstained has unveiled some worrying trends between exhibitions and oil sponsorship, ranging from lobbying opportunities with foreign governments to influencing the content of an exhibition about climate change.

The drive to generate commercial income is rife in most of the national institutions. Blockbuster exhibitions can often bring much-needed money but more rarely serve the interest of the local community. Cafés and bookshops are no longer sufficient and increasingly museums are turning to hosting private functions from weddings and conferences to corporate events. Enjoy your champagne and canapés alongside the Parthenon marbles or the Van Gogh paintings! Having to operate as ‘cultural businesses’, museums are inevitably departing from their public service ethos. School charges have been introduced in numerous venues and every department has to explore its income generation potential, from curatorial to conservation.

What can Labour do?

Until 2015, Labour’s support for museum workers and the fight against the impact of cultural austerity policies had been minimal. John McDonnell, as chair of the PCS parliamentary group, was back then a lonely MP on the pickets of the National Gallery or National Museums Wales, sometimes joined by Caroline Lucas or Jeremy Corbyn.

Meanwhile, PCS museum workers were organising with their colleagues at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, other art unions such as Equity, the Musicians Union and the Artists Union. Coming together under the umbrella of the TUC, they organised the ‘Show Culture Some Love’ campaign and produced a number of pledges to lobby politicians at the 2015 general election. Those simple demands included the protection and expansion of art funding, minimum standards of employment in the sector, the promotion of art education and tackling the inequalities of access. This simple and unifying programme was built on in Jeremy Corbyn’s art policy published in September 2015 after his first election as leader of the Labour Party.

Since then, a further leadership contest and general election, Brexit and the pressure of other crucial policies has meant that progress on a more detailed cultural policy has been slow. Grassroots initiatives like the Movement for Cultural Democracy are attempting to flesh out a programme generated from the bottom-up. This includes a call for the launch of a new national art fund financed by a transaction tax on the UK art market, which could bring in £1 billion to the public purse.

Clearly, this kind of innovative thinking is needed if Labour wants to reverse the devastating impact of a decade of Tory cuts. John McDonnell has long been an advocate of workers’ representation on boards but would that be sufficient to rebalance power? Jeremy Corbyn has promised to bring a number of sectors back into public ownership and to invest public money to reverse economic decline. That strategy may well work if applied to museums, as each pound invested in culture has a multiplier effect in the local economies.

Museums also have a positive effect on people’s wellbeing and could play an important role in public health policies, as recent programmes have shown. The House of Memories project, for example, has been effective in using museum objects to work with dementia patients and their families. At a time when local and national histories are often manipulated or rewritten by far-right forces, museums could also be places of dialogue to tackle prejudice and discrimination via contemporary collecting strategies.

The whole concept of museums, as institutions built on empire, is up for question. They can no longer operate as institutions for the elites and for the preservation of a ‘glorious’ past, but as places that treat access to culture as a fundamental human right for all.

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