Comparison of National Gallery to Disneyland touches a nerve

Front doors closed as indefinite strike continues. Andy Rain/EPA

Staff at the National Gallery are on indefinite strike in a dispute about the privatisation of much of its visitor services and security provision.

This follows 56 days of strikes by members of the PCS union at the gallery since February. During some of the busiest months of the tourist season, many of the most famous exhibits at the gallery have been – and are still – inaccessible.

More than 50,000 supporters have signed up to the “No Privatisation at National Gallery” campaign, and the strike is the subject of ongoing debate on social media. Not surprisingly, given his opposition to privatisation and his recent statement of support for the arts, Jeremy Corbyn has declared himself in solidarity with the workers. This has become a very visible dispute, further fuelled by calls to reintroduce admissions charges.

One striker explained the industrial action in part by predicting the gallery’s transformation into a theme park. That comparison was reported in The Guardian:

I can feel what’s coming. It’s in the air. They will turn the National Gallery into a big Disneyland of sorts. We definitely don’t want that.

The privatisation of services is part of the National Gallery’s “ongoing modernisation programme” aimed at making it, among other things, more appealing to a “broader (and younger) audience”. Sounds good, but there is some subtext here that is difficult to unpack. The gallery gives away little in its statement about the strikes.

It would seem that such privatisations (and the National Gallery are not on their own here) are part of a move to redefine the “experiences” that “customers” have in their interactions with the “business” of heritage. Museums and galleries are of course not immune to the commodification of our media and culture more broadly. The fact that at every museum conference I have been to this year someone has mentioned Disneyland’s MagicBand (a bracelet worn by visitors that stores their data, logs transactions and notes preferences with a view to providing a frictionless “consumer” experience) with a mix of awe and fear should perhaps tell us something about the direction of travel.

Half open. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

There are a number of terms that I hear repeatedly in the work I do with and alongside museums. Excellence. Resilience. Flexibility. Sustainability. The situation looks bleak, and is demanding creative and agile responses. Arts Council England’s museum resilience fund – which runs until 2018 – is a case in point.

Let’s be clear, the museums sector is already constituted of different funding and business models; some already generate their own income, some receive subsidy from the state, for many it is a mix. Some are national, some regional, some local. Many are completely run by volunteers, quietly making it work against all of the odds. The sector’s diversity might be considered one of its strengths.

Those museums which receive public funding are acutely aware that they must continue to make the case for their survival, and to re-articulate their value in line with current political and societal priorities. As such there have been moves to highlight the important role museums play in terms of education, social justice, well-being and happiness; the Museums Change Lives campaign for example. Evidence shows that at their best museums make people more curious, more connected and more happy.

Nevertheless, the debate about museums as businesses seems not to be going away and is in danger of trumping defences of museums and galleries as public institutions. And then there’s the resurfacing of calls for the re-introduction of admission charges. I am utterly perplexed by the persistence of this position. By all means have a debate about how museums can fund-raise more effectively – and they will need to, as the next tranche of cuts are announced – but let’s not return to a scenario where people feel disenfranchised and distanced from the collections they so often own.

Are these visitors or consumers? Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Museums and galleries are not stuck in the past. The museum staff that I have worked with strive to remain innovative and relevant, to do ethical and interesting projects with visitors of all kinds. They feel privileged to work with their collections, often alongside enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers. Cutting back their independence may only serve to hinder “modernisation”.

Statue of Sekhemka, sold by Northampton council. Bibilovski/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The cultural sector is bracing itself for further cuts. Free gallery admission is under threat. Museums around the UK have been scaling back their activities and making redundancies. Some are even considering the sale of valuable “assets” from their collections (and in the case of Northampton Borough Council the deed is done).

There can be “resilience” only up to a point. We have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure our museums remain viable and to protect them from becoming indistinguishable from other businesses. Disneyland is great for a day or two, but museums nurture relationships that last lifetimes.