Cultural learning is too valuable to lose
This is not a whinge or special pleading at a time of savage cuts, but a wake-up call about cuts in funding to learning services in museums, galleries and heritage.
These appear to reflect a shift in attitudes to learning and a step back to earlier assumptions about where learning belongs. Not only are learning and outreach posts going, but whole departments and teams. That is even before the full impact of the cuts is felt nationally and locally.
First to go was the outreach team and the recently appointed education director at English Heritage. Next we hear that more than ten post in the learning and interpretation departments at the Royal Armouries Leeds are being cut; apparently a new “visitor experience” team will include an “educational offer” from September.
Experienced frontline staff are being removed or downgraded and their work and programmes tossed away or radically changed. Is this what the government anticipated for public service delivery?
Many members of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) are wondering what will happen to their jobs or freelance work. Learning and outreach were already often being delivered on the shaky basis of short-term contracts and project funding, and relied on a pool of highly experienced freelance and part-time workers and, of course, many volunteers.
The impression is that a learning department is core and essential one day (and its work highly visible in funding applications, performance indicators and annual reports) and isn’t the next, when the budgets change. There will be many more cases like this when the cuts to Renaissance bite and nationals, trusts and local authorities experience more pressure on core budgets.
OK, the museum manager asks: “What do you expect me to do?” Our answer is to look at the future, and look at your audiences that you depend on for your ongoing income and support. Remember how long it has taken to undo the damage to museum learning, to community involvement and audience expectation from the previous Tory cuts.
As in other areas of public policy, there seems to be a lemming-like acceptance of an ideological and fiscal crusade as inevitable. It isn’t. There are choices and they don’t have to mean closing or cutting successful learning departments that have brought in greatly increased numbers, engagement and income from schools, families, adults and sponsors.
We can only hope that some of the enthusiasm that Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, showed for music education recently also greets the second Henley review of cultural learning, which is being watched carefully by all of us in a campaign that is being spearheaded by the Cultural Learning Alliance.
John Reeve is the chair of the Group for Education in Museums
[Museums Journal, April 2011]