CHRIS SMITH, when he was the Secretary of State for Culture, thought England's regional museums and galleries were in such a crisis that he established a task force to solve their problems. That was in January. It has just given its report - a remarkably quick response in government terms, but a Secretary of State later and at a time when, as Gordon Brown has made clear, only public services that rate as a priority will receive increased spending.
Museums have never been a priority, yet the report gaily proposes that an extra pounds 267.2m should be spent on them over the next five years. The idea is that this should go to establish what they call a "hub" museum service in each of the English regions. This will, essentially, mean a lot more money for nine existing museums, such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle, with some "satellites" added to deal with the problem of choosing between Leicester and Nottingham in the east Midlands, or Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth in the South-west.
No one doubts that these museums could do with more money. I was painfully aware as a museum director, in, respectively, Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow, how the huge cuts in public subsidy I had to introduce through the Eighties and Nineties took their toll on the number of the exhibitions we could mount, the school parties we could teach, the communities we could reach, not to mention the things we could buy. It is amazing how much we did, and museums up and down the country do, on such slender resources.
But is giving a few of them lots more money the best way of creating a new museum service? The task force thinks so, but then one of its chief architects, Sir Nicholas Serota, is used to running a national museum, and he naturally thinks big is best. He prefers to see resources concentrated into centres of excellence, rather than thinly spread. The key idea behind the report is that the selected museums will benefit the entire museum service by some means, but the means are not spelt out. To emphasise their beneficent role, they are called "hubs". But do hubs radiate largesse as they grow? Sometimes they just get bigger and bigger, while the spokes and rims get progressively thinner.
Everything would be fine if public money was not scarce and will go on increasing over the years. No one begrudges another museum getting rich first, if you're next in the queue (although there are about 1,800 recognised museums in Britain, so it's a long queue). But the …