There’s £14.1 million worth of redevelopment underway. So why are staff in uproar over cuts?

Steele Rudd reports

In 2004 the National Museums of Scotland, governing body of the UK’s most visited attraction outside of London, unveiled a £80 million, 15-year redevelopment Masterplan. The grand project has now reached its third phase, a refurbishment of Scotland’s most cherished building which is expected to increase display space in the redeveloped galleries by 40%.

Image of sculpture gallery at the National Museum of Scotland by Paolazzi

Talking heads: negotiations over pay have broken down, but gallery refurbishments continue

Meanwhile, an industrial dispute with employees backed by the Public and Commercial Services Union has bitterly boiled over into a series of strikes which shut the museum down at times during August – and looks set to escalate further.

The dispute centres around contracts introduced in 2011 which eliminated unsocial hours allowances for new staff. The Museum’s position is that cuts in funding make these allowances untenable.

But with over £14 million raised since then, including £4.85m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the NMS has been caught out in the awkward position of defending separate budgets for bricks-and-mortar and human beings.

How can the Museum fund a multimillion pound redevelopment while being forced to cut pay rates?

The NMS draws the majority of its funding from the Scottish Government’s Grant in Aid programme, but this continues to drop year-on-year. NMS spokesperson Bruce Blacklaw reports that measures to reduce operational costs “have included reducing staff numbers, reducing a range of budgets, constraining some services”, and the disputed contractual changes.

A voluntary redundancy package in 2011-12, for example, resulted in 16 staff leaving at an average cost of £32,625 each, with proportionate savings from 2012-13 onwards. Independent bodies including Audit Scotland and PricewaterhouseCoopers have expressed support for NMS’ practices but emphasised a need to plan for continued budgetary pressures, including a looming backlog of maintenance work that in 2010 was estimated at £16.3 million.

Dolly the Sheep at the National Museum of Scotland, copyright Mike Pennington

Gallery redevelopments mean Dolly the sheep will be put away until 2016.

Meanwhile, the Masterplan falls under the capital projects budget, described as “separately funded through grants and fundraising”. Financing for capital projects remains in a strong position, unaffected by crises elsewhere at the Museum. These funds are inaccessible for operational and other costs, and cannot be fed by other Museum budgets. The Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund are amongst the major donors to the Masterplan.

Different treatment for subcontractors and lessees mean double standard for coworkers

While the NMS proudly announces its support of the Scottish Living Wage, subcontractual arrangements often leave this out of its control. NMS staff and subcontractors work alongside one another, under different rates and conditions of pay – although this is already true of NMS staff dependent on the date of their hire.

An economic impact assessment from Biggar Economics in 2010 suggested that £3.19 could be generated for the Scottish economy for every £1 invested into the NMS by the Scottish Government, resulting in the equivalent of 3,124 full-time jobs in 2012-13. Most of these jobs will lie with the wider Edinburgh economy, with the NMS employing about 430 directly.

At the Museum After Hours event I attended on the 15th of August, staff in attendance told me that they “have to say they work for the Museum…or [they’ll] get in a lot of trouble”. In fact, many were employees on zero-hours contracts from staffing agency Splendid. Some had been given an hour’s notice beforehand that they were expected to work at the event, and at under £6/h were reportedly being paid less than UK minimum wage.

Animal Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland, by Dun_Deagh

Beasts of different ilk: different pay rates and conditions for workers side-by-side

The Museum’s position is that “event stewarding…is [outside] usual museum business”; but given that the Splendid staff could not answer questions on exhibits and Museum operations, it was not within their purview either. Several of the performers on the night were similarly hesitant to discuss the nature of the remuneration for their services, even under condition of anonymity.

Catering staff at the event were provided by NMS lessee and operator of the Museum Cafe, Benugo, and were reportedly paid unsocial hours allowances for their time. Benugo is among several commercial lessees of the NMS, including Tower Restaurant and NMS Enterprises.

Although NMSE, operator of the gift shops, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the NMS, it maintains that it has no involvement in the ongoing dispute. The NMS states that lessees’ contractual arrangements are “appropriate within the wider commercial market”, but could not divulge whether they benefit from cleaning, security and other services that the NMS provides for the building as a whole. When I visited to investigate, I was asked not to speak with NMSE staff and told no other official comment would be forthcoming.

Embarrassed silence from industry bodies leaves NMS and PCS in the lurch

The NMS claims that unsocial hours allowances “are no longer common in the culture and tourism sector across the UK”; but the PCS contends this, with similar industrial disputes ongoing at the Victoria and Albert and National Museum Wales among others.

Image of the cellular phones exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland, copyright Wikimedia Commons

Radio silence at the Museum: industry bodies go to any lengths in order not to comment

Very little objective guidance is available on the matter – the Museums Association, a peak body for institutions and professionals in the sector, produced Salary Guidelines in 2009. Yet when contacted, the MA declined not only to answer questions but refused to even endorse that document. Their only comment was that “the salary guidelines have not been updated since 2009”, leaving it unclear whether they are still valid.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, which bankrolled the current development at the National Museum for £4.85 million, also has no opinion about the dispute. Director Carole Souter publicly welcomed those Salary Guidelines upon their publication in the spirit of “rais[ing] awareness of the issues surrounding pay within museums” although now suggests “they were never intended to be prescriptive or binding on employers”.

Without guidance from impartial industry bodies, it’s difficult to determine whether the removal of unsocial hours allowances and other changes are justified. It’s clear, however, that the HLF tacitly supports the NMS.



EU < For ongoing coverage of the dispute

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Dolly the sheep copyright Mike Pennington

Cover image copyright M J Richardson