Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Dancing and Laughing

Sutton Hoo and Europe room, The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery. Source: British Museum.

Britain’s museums are being called upon to become more imaginative, The Economist, 3 October 2015

Hartwig Fischer has a PhD in art history, speaks four languages fluently, is an authority on difficult 20th-century artists such as Vassily Kandinsky and Kurt Schwitters and for the past three years has been running the Dresden State Art Collections, one of Europe’s finest. He deserves to be described as a serious man. This is just as well because, at 52, Mr Fischer is being asked to fill some very big shoes as the next director of the British Museum (BM). The man he is replacing, Neil MacGregor, took over a museum in crisis in 2002; after 13 years on the job he has turned the BM into the country’s leading visitor attraction (6.7m people came through the door in 2014). Mr MacGregor, who gained worldwide renown as a result of his BBC radio series, “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, is a national treasure.

Mr Fischer will move into his office in Bloomsbury just as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is being told about its coming budgets. The BM, along with other cultural institutions, has seen its public funding squeezed by one-third over the past five years. More cuts are on the way. In preparation for the government’s spending review in November, museums are being asked to put forward different models of cuts of 25% and 40%. “The short-term funding outlook in Britain is very, very grim,” says Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.

Nevertheless, Ms Balshaw, one of Mr Fischer’s rivals for the top job at the BM, has some good ideas for how to face up to the challenges of austerity. Her gallery has hosted a hip-hop party in its Grand Hall, done tai chi in the art garden, asked elderly men from a local care home to curate an exhibition and encouraged young people to do a “takeover” of the gallery. In the seven months since the Whitworth reopened after a 17-month restoration it has welcomed 300,000 visitors, compared with 180,000 over the whole year before it closed. In May the Art Fund voted it Britain’s “museum of the year”.

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