The European Capital of Culture in 2008 was no ‘blip’ in our city’s evolution; it put Liverpool firmly back on the cultural map and sparked a renaissance founded upon local pride, optimism and renewed self-confidence. Despite the credit crunch that followed hot on its heels, the year-long event made a lasting impact and change many people’s perceptions of Liverpool forever.
Consider this: visitor numbers to National Museums Liverpool in 2007 were 2,010,666. During the year of culture, the footfall boomed to 2,700,000. But even in 2009, as the recession began to bite, NML attracted 2,282,562 visitors – a 14% increase on pre-2008 levels and clear proof of an upward trend which bucked the national trend by tenfold.
It’s important to note that this was due not only to the ‘Capital of Culture’ effect but also to the universal free admission introduced in 2000 by an enlightened Labour Government determined to extend opportunities for cultural participation. Thanks to the measure, NML’s eight outstanding venues are open to the public free of charge. They are highly successful - Merseyside Maritime Museum is the second most popular museum outside London and attracts more visitors than the Imperial War Museum in the capital. The Museum of Liverpool, due to open in spring next year, looks set to be a major draw for the city.
Now, the Comprehensive Spending Review looms large and every Department – including the Department for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport - is preparing to administer savage cuts. National Museums Liverpool, which depends directly upon the Government for some 95% of its funding, has been told to expect cuts of between 30 and 40%.
The Government insists that the planned cuts need not affect frontline services (where have we heard that one before?) and that money can be saved by tackling waste. Yet NML bosses have warned cuts on the scale proposed could mean closing the National Conservation Centre and the Pier Master’s House to visitors and introducing seasonal opening at Sudley House. These three venues combined hosted 324,780 visitors in 2009. It’s difficult to see what is wasteful about catering to well in excess of a quarter of a million visitors. And surely only a philistine would consider free education in history, art, science and culture a waste of time and taxpayers’ money?
Particularly galling is the fact that the proposed cuts make a mockery of David Cameron’s decision in July to launch his ‘Big Society’ drive in Liverpool. Nobody would knock the notion of encouraging people to get actively involved in local cultural organisations. But it’s absurd to suggest that drafting in rafts of volunteers will be enough to save professionally-run institutions from closure. Only those hell-bent on shrinking public services and with an ideological drive to shrink the state would seriously suggest such a thing.
The NML family of museums and galleries is both a vital tourist magnet and a treasured local resource and amenity. Whilst – yes – it must look to achieve efficiencies, it should not be forced into scaling back its cultural offer. The damaging level of cuts proposed would be bad for Liverpool economically, socially and psychologically. It must be vigorously resisted.