Priceless art and the safety of visitors is being put at risk because of a backlog of essential maintenance work at some of the UK’s biggest museums, a report has found.
In an investigation into the maintenance of the museum estate, the National Audit Office looked at the often bread and butter repairs which need to be made at places such as the British Museum and the V&A to help keep collections, visitors and staff safe.
The NAO concluded that museums had had to prioritise only the most urgent repairs and delay other essential work, and said the government department responsible, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, “does not collect enough information to work out the funding required to address the long-term maintenance backlog for the museums and galleries it sponsors”.
Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “Failure to spend enough on repairs to the nation’s leading museums has put priceless art and the safety of staff and visitors at risk.
“The museums are telling DCMS that the backlog is getting worse. But the department does not yet know the full extent of the problem.
“The government has only offered sticking plasters – small amounts of money, too late in the day to do anything more than a short-term fix.”
Government funding received by the museums fell by 20% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2018-19, the report said. Visitor numbers in the same period increased by 19% from 41.8m to 49.7m.
Museums have managed to greatly increase the amount of income they generate themselves, up 37% in the same period from £274m to £432m.
But that cannot always be spent on repairs. The NAO said: “Sources of fundraising and other income often have conditions attached that only allow spending on public-facing elements of buildings.”
The NAO stated the money that DCMS gets from the Treasury has not been enough to cover the amounts requested from museums for repairs to their estate. For example, in 2019 the department allocated museums 54% or £42m of the £78m funding they requested for “genuinely urgent or critical repairs”.
The report cited examples of maintenance concerns. At the Wallace Collection in London in 2018, for example, a piece of masonry fell from the portico because of deteriorating supporting beams.
The report said historic under-investment affected museums’ ability to display collections. The Science Museum group, for example, in 2019 closed the Power Hall at its Manchester site because the roof was unsafe. It houses Europe’s largest collection of working steam engines and will remain closed until at least 2021.
Some museums have been unable to update dilapidated staff facilities, the report said.
“The museums told us working conditions have a direct impact on staff morale,” the NAO said. “Museums have had to make short-term repairs or delay essential maintenance work. This presents the risk that problems with the estate will become greater and more expensive to fix in the future.”
The NAO, the independent parliamentary body responsible for auditing government departments, investigated the maintenance issues of the 15 museums and galleries that get DCMS funding.
A spokesperson for the DCMS said: “We are committed to protecting and preserving the extraordinary buildings that hold the UK’s national collection.
“Estates management has been, and will remain, our priority and we are working closely with our sponsored museums to understand their unique maintenance needs.”