Anger over Bristol City Council plans to “decimate” museums budget

Council plans to “decimate” the amount it spends on Bristol’s museums will “dramatically reduce their ability to function” and cause huge damage to the city, warns an independent charity.

Bristol City Council’s budget for the next 12 months and beyond, to be set at a full council meeting next Tuesday (February 15), includes a “swingeing” £436,000 cut for the museums & archives service – more than 10 per cent of its usual annual funding.

The Friends of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives says this is a false economy that will jeopardise the city’s recovery, while trade union Unison says staffing levels will be “literally decimated”, with backroom employees such as curators taking the brunt of redundancies.

Unison also claims the full extent of the reductions have been “hidden” from the public because the savings are five times more than those in the original budget papers.

The council says balancing the budget and avoiding cuts to frontline services require savings to the culture service in line with other departments and that no final decisions have been made while a review is underway.

The Friends group says that despite mayor Marvin Rees insisting it is a “no frontline cuts budget”, the impact for the cultural service will be enormous.

Chairwoman Sue Thurlow said: “The cuts will inevitably reduce the ability of the museums to put on big and successful exhibitions which bring visitors from the local area and beyond, such as the current Grayson Perry’s Art Club and the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

“The museums and galleries are vital to Bristol’s post-pandemic recovery, bringing people back into the city and attracting high-spending visitors to Bristol.

“We fully understand the need to make budget savings at a time when many of our citizens are facing real financial hardship, and that councillors are facing really difficult choices in allocating scarce resources, but cuts to museums and galleries are a false economy which will affect the range and quality of services they can offer.

“The council must reconsider these planned cuts because the damage caused to the museums and archives will be felt across the city and beyond for years to come.”

‘Our staffing levels will literally be decimated’

The group said museum services were important for the city’s mental health and wellbeing, not only culturally but as safe spaces for people concerned about venturing out post-Covid.

It said: “Damage to museums is damage to the education of local children at a time when a balanced and informed knowledge of Bristol’s past is more important than ever.

“At a time when families across the city are facing serious financial stress, the city’s museums offer family-friendly outings free of charge.”

A table listing each council service’s cost reductions that was agreed by cabinet last month showed £83,000 less money a year for museums & archives from 2023/24.

But the same table going to full council now also shows an additional £353,000 reduction from the following year which wasn’t there before, and a new ongoing total of £436,000.

In a statement to cabinet on January 18, Bristol union representative Steve Mills said only the lower figure had been included when staff had already been told it would be much higher.

He said: “This level of reduction, we are told, will necessitate job losses – we estimate at the very least eight to 10 people being made redundant but the real number will likely be considerably more and possibly double.

“Our staffing levels will literally be decimated, as will the service we provide.”

What the Council said

A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “The cabinet has proposed a balanced budget that means we can avoid cuts to crucial front line services.

“Savings need to be made to the culture service in line with other savings being made by other departments.

“There is currently a review of the culture service and no final decisions have been made.”

He said the higher number in the budget papers going to full council was the total saving over three years. Museums & archives operates across seven visitor sites which are all currently free to enter – Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, M Shed, Blaise Museum, The Red Lodge Museum, The Georgian House Museum, Bristol Archives and Kings Weston Roman Villa.

Adult admission fees for The Red Lodge and The Georgian House would be introduced under the council’s budget.

The service looks after more than two-million objects and pieces of archive material dating back to the 12th century, including 1,300 paintings, 200 sculptures, 500,000 photos, 2,000 archive films and over one-million geology and biology specimens.

In 2018/19, before the pandemic, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery alone welcomed 450,000 visitors. M Shed played a leading role in the History Commission’s work on the Colston Statue.

The museums host Art Shed, a fortnightly arts and health project that provides workshops for people experiencing anxiety and depression.

The Friends group is independent of the museums and the council and has raised £2million since it was founded to help fund acquisitions, conservation and displays, as well as education.