The National Libraries, Museums and Galleries demonstration on 5 November will bring together campaigns in defence of cultural services that have been springing up across the country.
Outside my local library last Friday morning, just before it opened at 10am, was a queue of over 20 visitors. There were parents and their children coming in for storytelling and others to read newspapers and use the computers they might not have at home. After school, children from the primary school across the road stream in to take out books for their weekend reading, and older students revise for exams or spend time with their friends, especially in the absence of a properly funded youth service.
For many, libraries are a place where they can access services that enhance their lives. They are one of the few places where you don’t have to spend money to enjoy yourself.
Museums and galleries have seen an increase in visitor numbers in recent years, with staff committed to extending and opening up collections to audiences who may not think such places are for them. These services are under unprecedented attack. In the past six years 8,000 library staff have been sacked. 343 libraries have closed and many more remain open but are run by volunteers or with reduced opening times. The Cuts Survey, published by the Museums Association in December 2015, showed that 18 percent of museums will have closed some or all of their branches this year.
Inspiring campaigns at National Museums Wales, the National Gallery and for Lambeth libraries have demonstrated a defence of cultural services, with staff and users coming together in these campaigns. The attack on libraries in Lambeth, south London, is indicative of cuts across the country. In October 2015 Lambeth council announced it would close half of the libraries in the borough. They have plans to turn the buildings into gyms with small “book lounges” attached — and no trained library staff.
In Lancashire, plans have been announced to close 20 libraries across the county and in Lewisham the council intends to keep just three libraries under council control.
Tory cuts to local government spending have had a particularly detrimental effect on museums, galleries and libraries. It was announced this month that The New Art Gallery Walsall, a building opened in 2000 and one of the most prominent cultural institutions in the West Midlands, will face closure because of local authority cuts of £86 million. The artist Patrick Brill, also known as Bob and Roberta Smith, described how the closure of the Walsall gallery is another example of how “local collections are treasure houses waiting to be sold at Sothebys and Christies.”
The cuts have meant that museums and galleries are increasingly searching for other funding, in particular from big business. Art activism group BP or Not BP are one of a coalition of groups raising the issue of corporate sponsorship, especially related to the oil industry and climate change.
At its 2015 conference the PCS union called for an ethical funding policy for the arts and committed to campaigning against such sponsorship in the organisations where its members work. Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery are all currently in five-year sponsorship deals with BP.
Campaigners point out that the move towards such sponsorship is more about rebuilding the tarnished reputations of these companies than funding a sustainable cultural sector. Concerns have continually been raised over the influence that these companies have on museum and gallery programmes, with leaked emails showing that Shell had attempted to influence the content of Science Museum exhibitions and events on climate change.
Privatisation is also becoming increasingly common. The gyms replacing the libraries in Lambeth will be run by GLL, a private contractor. At the National Gallery, PCS members struck for more than 100 days over the decision to move many of the gallery’s staff to the firm Securitas, a contract worth £40 million over five years.
Contracts are increasingly precarious. Many staff in museums and libraries are on zero-hour or freelance contracts, without proper or consistent terms and conditions, and front of house staff are recruited by agencies who take a chunk of their wages. At National Museums Wales workers went on strike this summer to defend attacks on weekend payments which would have seen the lowest paid staff have their pay cut by up to £5,000 a year. Paid roles are cut to be filled by volunteers. This may fit into an organisation’s “resilience” agenda but often results in the loss of skills and knowledge that paid stuff build over a number of years.
It is fantastic that the demonstration on 5 November is being supported by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership. But there is a gap between this support and the actions of councils such as Lambeth, where some Labour councillors have been determined to push through cuts to local services despite so much opposition from the communities they represent. It is also encouraging that the demonstration is backed by three major unions, Unison, Unite and the PCS.
We are fighting for vital services that represent and further learning, creativity and inclusion. Trade unions, staff, users and communities all have a part to play.