Charitable museums to be given more power to spend reserves

DCMS pilot scheme will offer institutions such as the British Museum easier access to finance and more control over how they are managed

British Museum
British Museum

Charitable museums will be give more power to spend their reserves and opt out of central procurement controls under a four-year pilot scheme set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The DCMS said in a statement last week that the package would provide easier access to finance, giving museums more control over the way in which they managed themselves and made operational improvements.

The changes include greater freedom for museums to spend reserves as they see fit, the flexibility to opt out of government procurement controls, and the power to take loans from their sponsoring department.

The DCMS said the project would be "limited to those museums with a high level of financial and management capacity", and that the department was "working with HM Treasury on the specific details of the pilot".

The Spending Round 2013, the document that details the government’s spending plans for 2015/16, revealed last week that there were plans to increase museums’ freedom to "help the sector thrive and continue to become more financially self-reliant".

More than 20 charitable cultural organisations, including many of the best-known museums and galleries in London, are classified as non-departmental public bodies because the government has substantial powers to appoint and dismiss board members, and provides much of their funding.

Directors of these bodies have previously told Third Sector that they had been subject to government pay freezes and advertising bans, and that they had been forced to follow unsuitable government procurement rules.

Katie Childs, policy and projects manager at the National Museums Directors’ Council, which represents national bodies such as the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, said the new pilot was a positive step.

"Almost by accident, museums have been hoovered up in spending and marketing controls that were applied when the new government came in," she said.

"Museums have peculiar skills needs that don’t fit easily into a pay structure copied from the civil service. And they need to advertise, or no one will know when they have a new exhibit. This is a way of freeing them from government frameworks."

Childs said it was unclear which organisations would be involved in the pilot, but it was likely to involve 13 bodies sponsored by the DCMS and three sponsored by the Ministry of Defence, as well as three in Scotland and one each in Wales and Northern Ireland.

She added that Kew Gardens, which is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, could potentially form part of the pilot.

However, the new pilot is unlikely to give museums greater freedom of governance, according to Childs. "That would be a massive change," she said. "There has been no change there since the Museums and Galleries Act 1992."

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