Written evidence submitted by the National Museum Directors' Council





NMDC response to DCMS Select Committee on Promoting Britain Abroad

January 2022



About the NMDC

The National Museum Directors' Council represents the leaders of the UK's national collections and major regional museums.  Our members are the national and major regional museums in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Archives and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.  While our members are funded by government, the NMDC is an independent, non-governmental organisation.  For more information about NMDC and our activity see our website: www.nationalmuseums.org.uk



The NMDC welcomes the chance to respond to the Select Committee’s inquiry on Promoting Britain Abroad. As well as being inspiring, educational and fun destinations, museums contribute to promoting Britain abroad through extensive domestic and international activities. Their work supports knowledge exchange, partnerships, education and skills, development and fundraising and cultural protection. They drive regional prosperity, contributing significantly to place making, and act as anchor institutions in their locality to support destination awareness and drive tourism.


Since this call for evidence was launched, the situation in the UK has changed dramatically regarding the pandemic. The answers to this consultation therefore reflect the current events but also look beyond to the future where the impacts of covid-19 have reduced.




According to DCMS data for 2020, music, performing and visual arts were the hardest hit by the pandemic in light of the protracted period of restrictions on live performances, and are not projected to return to pre-pandemic levels until after 2025. Museums, galleries, and libraries were the second hardest hit segment. These two sectors were projected to grow 2-3 times as fast as the UK-wide economy in 2021 and 2022, but even this would not be sufficient to take them back to their pre-pandemic levels (Oxford Economics research for Creative UK). This was prior to the emergence of omicron. 


Prior to the resurgence of the virus, museums were not expecting visitor levels to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024/25, and some museums do not expect them ever to return to this level due to a variety of factors. Many museums have significantly changed or reduced their offer in response to the pandemic, there has been widespread downsizing and redundancies across the sector as a result and museums have had to shift how and what they deliver.


Some museums saw a boom after the lifting of restrictions, particularly those with outdoor space which were able to open earlier and more extensively giving visitors a safe place to congregate while social distancing. But with the resurgence of the virus, museums are again facing difficulty operating and numerous museums had to close their doors over the Christmas holiday when faced with staffing shortages.


Government should recognise these protracted difficulties that the tourism sector faces in bouncing back. There are huge issues currently facing the sector particularly around staffing and renewed concerns about lost income. Major disruptions were caused in the lead up to and over the Christmas period due to staff illness and self-isolation. Many museums which expected to have profitable Christmas periods reluctantly closed their doors and saw many or all event bookings cancelled.


Museums are expecting these challenges to increase through the new year. Staffing challenges are exacerbated by ongoing problems with recruitment in hospitality and catering. And these issues are having major impacts on staff morale and well-being including increasing concerns over potential of covid infection from public facing roles.


These issues are no doubt replicated throughout the tourism industry, which paired together with decreasing visitor numbers and wide-spread cancellation of events due to concerns about public health and safety, puts museums and other tourist attractions in a worrying position, threatening their viability once again.


Before the pandemic, international tourists made up 48% of total visits to DCMS-sponsored museums. While this number is not indicative of the proportion of international visits to all museums in the sector, it does demonstrate the importance of inbound tourism to some of the major and most visited museums in England.


The impact on the industry will be significant. While many parts of the museum sector changed focus to local needs and their organisational strengths as civic institutions during lockdown, many still rely on inbound tourism returning in the longer term to survive.


There are also knock-on effects across the whole sector and beyond as museum visits support a wide range of secondary spend, not just in shops, cafes and local economies but non-creative suppliers such as insurance providers, suppliers of printed materials and legal professionals. Museums, galleries and libraries have the largest GVA multiplier in the creative sector for every £1 directly generated, their supply chain supports another £4.4 elsewhere in the economy (Oxford Economics for Creative UK).


While large scale international travel remains not possible or is slow to return, government and agencies should be leveraging the assets they do have to promote the UK abroad, including the British Council and BBC. In-country activity should also focus on promoting the UK as a destination.


Museums have a long and successful history of showcasing the UK in a positive manner overseas via in-country activity, and the museum sector remains an excellent vehicle for promoting the UK for example via touring exhibitions, cultural diplomacy, contribution to partner events and digital initiatives. With the right level of support (predominantly financial) museums could increase this activity and its impact by building on already strong foundations working with established networks, as well as forging new relationships.  


To enable visitors to return, public messaging for both domestic and international visitors should be as clear as possible. It is well documented that people visit the UK for its culture and heritage, and trust in our public institutions is high, but mixed messaging about public safety and complicated or unclear procedures for entry to the country will work against people’s proclivity to visit.


Museums are safe places to visit, having gone to great lengths to adapt operations and programmes to put public safety as the prime objective. However these efforts cannot alone convince hesitant visitors to attend, so government messaging has to be consistent as the pandemic continues. Potential global visitors have to be reassured that their visit to the UK will be a safe one, and easy access to up to date information on travel needs is key.



The plan is right to focus on getting the sector reopened and providing businesses with the support they need to return to profit, however the measures outlined will need to be reconsidered in light of the continuing impact of the pandemic.


The plan was published before the resurgence and renewed lockdown so neither the main report nor the research on which it is based factor this in, meaning timeframes for recovery and support needed could drastically change. One of the biggest challenges now will be to try and ensure organisations that survived the challenges of the first two waves of the pandemic can emerge again following omicron.


The renewed lockdown measures, public caution, national disparity in measures across the 4 nations and international travel restrictions both from the UK and other countries are having a compounding effect on the tourism sector.


Although some support measures have been renewed and new money committed by Government, this may not be enough to see organisations through that were struggling toward the end of 2021 and counting on an expected boost the Christmas and new year bookings would bring.


Most museums saw 50% to 100% of their corporate bookings cancelled in the lead up to Christmas, whilst others who had planned to be open for the entire festive period had to close due to staffing shortages. The Natural History Museum, which attracted over 5 million visits in 2018 and saw record breaking figures for its national touring exhibition of Dippy, had to close entirely Christmas week due to over half its front of house team being off sick or self-isolating. Museums also saw tours and group bookings cancelled. The huge drop in visitor numbers has an immediate impact on income generation not just through exhibition tickets and events but also on secondary spend, donations and memberships.


Cultural organisations are now in the impossible situation (similar to the tiering system in late 2020) where people are still technically allowed to visit, but due to the spread of omicron and public messaging around it they are staying away. Events are being cancelled whether due to falling attendee numbers, corporate hesitancy, depleted teams of staff or caution about public facing events. The drop in corporate confidence means bookings are not being confirmed for Q1 of 2022/23, which leaves museums unable to plan or budget effectively and with no pipeline of the future event bookings, which provide a major source of self-generated income for museums.


Many organisations are now in as difficult a situation as in the first phase of the pandemic, with the lingering uncertainty making business planning impossible. The loss of festive season earnings for some parts of the tourism industry will have been crippling after the slow recovery from the first and second waves. The plan must provide proper support to the sector which is now entering effectively a third year of pandemic.


There is an understandable focus in the plan on the ‘set piece events’ of 2022, and despite the continuing pandemic, there will still be opportunities to engage the world with these celebrations, albeit possibly in a less ambitious way. Some events that might have been held in person may now have to be delivered online.


Many museums are keen to respond to these national events, but even before the pandemic there was a trend for government to expect participation in such initiatives without funding and often at short notice. While struggling under the weight of the pandemic museums will want to use some of these events to focus activity and to draw in audiences, but faced with challenges to even their basic operations some small seed funding would enable the cultural sector to more effectively engage with these banner events. Government funding would also demonstrate an appreciation of the value that museums and other cultural organisations can bring to ensuring wide-spread engagement across the country in such enterprises.


As a wider point, funding also needs to be delivered in a timely way – and considering museums as potential partners rather than delivery bodies for government initiatives. Deeper and better engagement is always achieved with more lead in time, and museums’ knowledge can be drawn on for how best to engage communities in certain types of initiatives.


The lack of international visitors over the lockdown and extended periods of closure mean that museums will be anticipating the increased footfall and interest that these 2022 events could offer. Effective marketing campaigns for events that can take place in a live environment will be essential, and funding support for organisations that want to get involved will be needed to ensure their success.


The majority of museums’ international activity is not funded by government. Instead museums use their global networks to initiate projects of mutual benefit between partner countries, many of which are supported by corporate support or philanthropy. Museums are able to engage in this type of activity only when their core activities of caring for collections and providing public access are well funded.


Therefore, stable core funding remains the best way to ensure successful cultural sector events that draw international audiences, and the importance of this cannot be underplayed. Sustained core funding (rather than one off funding for short-term projects) is essential for museums to continue and to build upon their excellent work which contributes to the promotion of the UK abroad. Infrastructure funding arrangements are helpful, though for example the Museums and Galleries Exhibition Tax Relief, which enables changing programmes that may tour and draw in domestic and international visits alike.


There should be ongoing engagement with all areas of the museum sector, and increased link up across the DCMS portfolios to ensure that efforts are joined up. Museums are major assets to the tourism industry and as such more frequent and free flowing communication should be possible across our sector and the wider industries that make up the tourist economy.




The UK must remain an appealing international partner for art, science, technology and research – a key government focus should be ensuring that the UK remains competitive in these areas and that UK organisations are supported to succeed on the global stage.


The international work of museums makes a major contribution to the UK’s soft power capability and influence overseas. The role museums can play in helping to combat global challenges, particularly in responding to a wide range of Sustainable Development Goals, should receive more recognition. Beyond cultural protection, museums can help develop and exemplify approaches to, for example; the challenges of an ageing society, health and wellbeing, literacy and education, and fighting modern slavery, by raising awareness and actively addressing these issues through their programmes.


For example, the Science Museum Group demonstrates the global nature of science through its international partnerships and projects in the UK and overseas. It showcases British achievements as a leader in science, but also as an open, generous collaborator, demonstrating that it takes international cooperation to tackle the global challenges that face humankind such as climate change and health. The British Museum is active in almost every continent around the world, through major touring exhibitions, research collaborations, training programmes and skill-sharing. This is only possible due to the national and global networks and long-term relationships that the Museum has developed and sustained over many years.


The National Archives staff include internationally renowned experts in records/collections, research, conservation, information and records management and digital archiving, and they provide important cultural heritage, educational and public services to many thousands of users in the UK and around the world. The National Archives collection is a rich source of cultural material and as such, a significant asset in promoting the value of the UK on the cultural and heritage global stage.


A vast array off regional and national museums maintain long-lasting partnerships with organisations across the globe, even in contested regions and often in spite of difficult political and diplomatic circumstances. They use their collections and expertise to engage people and cultures in other countries, as well as international diaspora communities in the UK.


Though the UK regularly ranks high on global indexes of soft power, EU exit will no doubt have raised some questions about how open and welcoming the UK is as a partner for business and culture. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, people at home and abroad can look to our institutions to lead the way as a mechanism to promote openness and inclusivity.


While museums’ relationships with European partners are based on the commonalities of collections and expertise and many exist outside of the European Union structure, there are concerns over the future of funding, exclusion from networks, and challenges associated with changes to the free movement of people and objects. Considerable concern was caused by the possible withdrawal from Horizon Europe, and although the UK has now committed to remain involved the uncertainty caused disruption to projects and prevented UK partners from leading on some of planned collaborative projects.


A large question remains nationally about the domestic replacement for EU structural funds, as it is yet to be seen what role the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will take in replacing this lost income or what the eligibility criteria will be.


Government must do everything it can to support the ease of flow of these cultural goods and services. Museums are not experiencing quite as acute difficulties with movement as others in the cultural sector, as the majority of cross-border movement is object rather than people based, but there have already been significant disruptions and museums have had to find innovative ways to manage travel disruptions caused both by Brexit and covid. For example, Tate and others have developed very detailed processes for moving objects across borders without their usual human couriers to accompany them - by virtual means – for some this is a temporary measure put in place while movement of people is difficult or prohibited but where these new processes work well, they may become standard practice.


Beyond the Pandemic


The UK must invest seriously in culture. For over a decade prior to the pandemic the cultural sectors suffered immense cuts. Museums particularly faced a reduction in investment of at least 30% in the prior 10 years, with much sector funding coming via local councils tasked with prioritising ring-fenced areas of adult social care, leaving culture with whatever was left from ever decreasing settlements.


The pandemic has seen the largest ever investment the sector has seen through the Culture Recovery Fund. This is a welcome recognition from government that the people, organisations and networks that make up the UK’s cultural sector are essential not only for the economy but for a healthy and thriving society.


However, this investment was emergency funding to replace the drastic and immediate losses in income that the sector faced when cultural organisations closed their doors. What will be needed after the pandemic is long term sustainable revenue funding. Recent commitments to capital funding in the Budget and Spending Review are extremely welcome, but should be paired with long term revenue to support operations, programmes and engagement as well as buildings.


To see a full recovery – and to protect and consolidate the generous emergency funding already given – the government must now continue to invest in these essential organisations and services to ensure they can survive and thrive beyond the prolonged effects of the pandemic. Properly funded, our world-class museums can continue to be a globally recognised centre of excellence and a major draw for inbound tourism.