Friday, February 5, 2010

Cut to the Bone

Will the cuts ever stop? I started out this blog back at the beginning of last year bemoaning the effects of the economy on museum programs and it seems like the troubles never end. This week my own institution, Yale, announced a second round of measures aimed at reducing the University's annual expenditure by another $150 million dollars. This will undoubtably impact Yale's museums, just as it will affect programs across the University. In the museum collections world, the main buzz surrounds the demise of the Save America's Treasures and Preserve America grant programs, which the Obama Administration has announced will no longer be funded in FY 2011. These are not huge programs - cutting them will save $30 million per year from a Federal budget of $3.83 trillion - but they have had a big impact. Save America's Treasures is an important source of funding for conservation projects and it has supported an impressive roster of work over the last 11 years - from conserving the original Star-Spangled Banner to supporting work at the Henry Whitfield House in my own home town of Guilford CT. Search their list of projects and if you live in America I guarantee you will find a SAT supported site within an hours' drive of your home.

Of course, the easy solution is to shrug your shoulders and say that everyone is suffering at the moment. But as my friend and colleague, conservator Sari Uricheck wrote last week "the signal that conservation and preservation efforts are expendable during tough economic times is worrisome... it is hard to accept such an extreme cut that indicates little value is placed on the preservation of the fabric of our history, creativity, and culture."

Of course, the world won't come to an end because the Save America's Tresures Program gets cancelled, and that's part of the problem. Museum workloads have slowly been creeping upwards, while staffing numbers have been sliding downwards. It's a stealthy process - new staff *do* get appointed, but my experience is that few of these are new positions and that usually the "cost" of one new appointment is two or more frozen or eliminated positions. Because this a slow process, the damage isn't always easy to see. Collections staff can still do the loans, enquiries, and visitor support that are the visible component of their job. Where they struggle is with the long-term, unglamorous, and largely invisible aspects of museum work - cataloging, conserving, rehousing, and recurating.

We now have a slew of reports (which I've discussed elsewhere) that document the effects of years of trimming - the nation's heritage in a parlous state. There's a school of thought that sees a silver lining in the current economic cloud; that by implementing austerity measures we clear away inefficiency and "dead wood" and come out with something better. The various reports on the state of the nation's collections prove that this just isn't true. We haven't ended up with leaner and more efficient institutions - instead, we have institutions that can no longer do their job. Ultimately the economy will turn around, but the damage that we've caused so far will be a lot harder to reverse.


  1. *sigh* Sounds like Thatcher's Britain, doesn't it?

  2. Yeah, there is a strong feeling of deja vu...