Wednesday, May 29, 2013

ICOM Europe Conference: Public Policies towards Museums in Times of Crisis

City of Lisbon, Portugal

In April 2013, I participated in a conference in Lisbon on the funding crisis facing museums in Europe, which was sponsored by ICOM. I was also invited to speak on “the Canadian experience”.

I was eager to attend this conference and to learn more about how museums in Europe are dealing with the massive cuts. While there, I heard many horror stories but felt the hope of my museological colleagues. There have been many closures of museums, aggressive programs for merging museums, rushed privatization of some sites, and many layoffs. These extensive changes have even paralyzed many museums. The seriousness of the situation was very evident in Lisbon where youth unemployment is over 50% and the economy is stagnant.

In my presentation (which you can access further below), I made several key points, namely :
  • The Canadian model, which has been created more by evolution than deliberate design, is a hybrid between the European state model of funding museums and the private sector model in the United States. This places museums in a much stronger position due to diversification of funding, and not at the whim of one source.
  • The European museums are facing massive changes all at once, whereas in Canada, the cuts to funding programs have been spaced over a number of years starting in the 1990s. Today things are relatively stable in Canada.
  • An interesting observation is that a year or two after each of the major cuts at the federal level, we received some new support, such as the Indemnification Program, or new funds for youth employment. These gains were specific and did not really address the overall museum policy but they were welcome nonetheless.
  • Museums in Canada have adjusted to lower public funding by developing their earned revenue streams and, to some extent, donations from the private sector. The CMA is still perusing its proposal for a new matching donations program as a short term incentive to help museums increase donations and their ability to raise donations, from approximately 9% to nearly 15-20%.
  • The current Conservative Government has been favourable to museums. Museum programs were one of the very few not to be seriously cut in 2012. In fact the Indemnification Program was also doubled to $3 billion, and $25 million has been allocated to the rebranding of the Canadian Museum of History.
  • In the short term, the CMA is focusing on the upcoming 150th Anniversary of Confederation where new funds for museum projects are anticipated. At this time there is no anticipated development of a new museum policy; in fact policy development is virtually non-existent in all sectors in these times of restraint.

The major questions are: What is the rightful role of public funds for museums? and Where is the tipping point? These questions remain unanswered.

Let's start a discussion on this issue. We'd love to hear what you think! Please leave a comment on this blog.

You can view the presentation slides here:

Further details and papers on the conference can be found at  

John G. McAvity
Executive Director

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