Bristol's costly shed

June 20, 2011 10:59 AM

Always good to have a new museum in a city, but last week’s opening of Bristol’s harbourside M Shed raises a few interesting questions about the public and private funding of culture. Two years late and £8 million over budget, the M Shed inhabits the site of the former Industrial Museum and is devoted to the history of the city. In total, the museum cost £27m to build, receiving £11m from the Heritage Lottery fund, £1.5m from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and further funding from Bristol City Council. Some of the ‘unforeseen costs’ included removing contaminated waste from the site, redesigning the building’s foundations and concrete framework — indeed, it would have been cheaper to build it from scratch elsewhere.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Two years late and £8m over budget"][/caption]

M Shed is in line with a trend for museums today that show fewer actual exhibits and more multi-media displays. City council partnerships director Stephen Wray criticises the long-established Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery for not having enough information on the city, but surely that is something that could have been addressed for a fraction of the cost of the M Shed? ‘It is driven by stories,’ says Wray of the new space, ‘not artifacts.’ But as visitors listen to accounts of slavery, I do wonder if that couldn’t have been equally well communciated by a TV documentary or radio show. Do we really need a new multi-million pound warehouse to house a few screens and sound systems?

In contrast, the Holburne Museum in Bath has recently re-opened and is thronged with record crowds. Its new extension suffered only minor delays and was funded mainly by private donors, trusts and charitable foundations, with less than half its total cost of £13.8 million coming from the taxpayer. The extension has doubled the gallery space and is filled, amazingly for a museum today, with real historical objects rather than an array of screens and headphones. I know where I’d rather spend a rainy weekend.Always good to have a new museum in a city, but last week’s opening of Bristol’s harbourside M Shed raises a few interesting questions about the public and private funding of culture. Two years late and £8 million over budget, the M Shed inhabits the site of the former Industrial Museum and is devoted to the history of the city. In total, the museum cost £27m to build, receiving £11m from the Heritage Lottery fund, £1.5m from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and further funding from Bristol City Council. Some of the ‘unforeseen costs’ included removing contaminated waste from the site, redesigning the building’s foundations and concrete framework — indeed, it would have been cheaper to build it from scratch elsewhere.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Two years late and £8m over budget"][/caption]

M Shed is in line with a trend for museums today that show fewer actual exhibits and more multi-media displays. City council partnerships director Stephen Wray criticises the long-established Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery for not having enough information on the city, but surely that is something that could have been addressed for a fraction of the cost of the M Shed? ‘It is driven by stories,’ says Wray of the new space, ‘not artifacts.’ But as visitors listen to accounts of slavery, I do wonder if that couldn’t have been equally well communciated by a TV documentary or radio show. Do we really need a new multi-million pound warehouse to house a few screens and sound systems?

In contrast, the Holburne Museum in Bath has recently re-opened and is thronged with record crowds. Its new extension suffered only minor delays and was funded mainly by private donors, trusts and charitable foundations, with less than half its total cost of £13.8 million coming from the taxpayer. The extension has doubled the gallery space and is filled, amazingly for a museum today, with real historical objects rather than an array of screens and headphones. I know where I’d rather spend a rainy weekend.

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