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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
British Museum: Squaring the funding circle
British Museum
The museum received 4.6 million visitors last year
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By Alex Webb
BBC News Online Entertainment staff
The last year should have been a good one for the British Museum.

The Great Court, which opened in December 2000, had been widely praised.

The museum appointed a new director, Neil McGregor, who joined from another of the UK's great collections, the National Gallery.

Neil MacGregor
MacGregor has had to grapple with a funding crisis
And the museum's long-standing policy of free access had been vindicated by the government's move to put all the national collections on the same footing - as well as instituting tax changes to help them.

But the announcement of 150 job cuts in the face of an impending 5m deficit has cast a shadow over the coming 250th anniversary celebrations in 2003.

The museum blames an inadequate government grant, a drop in tourism after the 11 September attacks on the US and new investment in new technology and improving access to the building.

The institution's grant is 36m in the current financial year - "a figure that has not increased for a number of years", the museum has complained.


Figures from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport do not bear this out. In fact the institution's grant rose from 33.9m in 1998-99 to 36m in 2001-02.

But the future looks more bleak. The museum is on a cash standstill from now until 2004 - setting aside some money allocated to urgent roof repairs.

The Great Court
The Great Court opened in December 2000
Josie Appleton, author of the critical study Museums For The People? has sympathy for the museum's plight.

"Their grant is not being increase in line with inflation, so they'll be getting a lot less," she told BBC News Online.

"The government is channelling funding to sexy new projects, and the older collections and that curatorial style are not given the same value."

The drop in London tourism should have less effect on a collection which is free to get into - but a shortage of wealthy Americans (17% of visitors in 2001) may have led to a drop in donations - and, more crucially, on-site spending.


The average visitor spends or gives 2.48 on a trip to the museum.

But although the museum's spending on improving building access, its website and interactive services might seem unavoidable, Josie Appleton is not convinced.

"A lot of access projects and websites are done to demonstrate goodwill rather than out of usefulness. A lot of interactive projects are probably wastes of money," she said.

Elgin Marbles
Visior spend an average of 2.48 each
But increasing electronic access to the museum and improving its website are part of the collection's funding agreement with DCMS, so economies here are unlikely.

And the visitor pull of the Great Court development is not likely to increase - in fact, cost cuts have already led to a shortening of the court's opening hours.

"The Great Court is very good," said Josie Appleton.

"But the problem is that too much has been loaded onto it, in terms of creating a civic hub or cultural market square.

"In the end it's just the centre of a museum."

The DCMS said that it is sympathetic to the museum's problems - but is offering no more money.

"The department is working closely with the British Museum to help it through its current difficulties," said a spokesman.

"The museum's grant has already been increased this year, and it is benefiting by at least 500,000 per annum from changes in the VAT regime."

But it still seems likely the British Museum will be looking forward to a rather austere 250th birthday in 2003.

BBC News Online looks at how the arts are funded in the UKArts funding
How the UK's cash for the arts is spent
See also:

30 Apr 02 | Arts
British Museum cuts 150 jobs
20 Sep 01 | Arts
Funding the British Museum
08 Nov 01 | Arts
Museums turn on government
17 Jan 01 | Entertainment
British Museum reputation 'damaged'
04 Dec 00 | Entertainment
British Museum opens to controversy
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