Almost half the population visited a museum or gallery in the past year – part of a steady increase in the last half decade. Museums are a major cultural force in this country, and their influence is growing.
In hard economic terms they are an important part of a cultural and tourism sector that now accounts for a substantial part of the economy. Their purely cultural impact might be relatively intangible, but it is also real.
Museums help shape how we see ourselves and the world we live in: not just our past but our present and future. They inspire and educate while they entertain – you only have to go to the Science Museum on a Saturday afternoon to see that.
They help create a sense of history and a sense of community, both by preserving our culture and by being a visible sign of civic pride and social values in themselves – often one planted squarely in the heart of the community.
It is another good reason why museums should not have to rely solely on wealthy individuals: it is right that society should make a certain investment in them.
In my own constituency, there is plan for our Town Hall to host Experience Barnsley – a wonderful set of exhibits including hundreds of objects contributed by the people of Barnsley themselves, as well as hoards of Roman coins and stunning sound, film and image collections – helping people understand their borough and its history from thousands of years ago right up to the present day.
Just north of the town, the National Coal Mining Museum gives visitors the visceral, first-hand experience of going underground themselves and seeing how the coal that once powered the whole country was extracted.
For me this is the essence of what a museum is about: it not only helps children understand an industry which made Barnsley what it is today, but does it in a way that helps them think about how they can shape their own futures. In an age when so many of the old sinews of community and identity have loosened or been lost, that is priceless.
I want to see the impact of museums increased. I am immensely proud of the fact that so many museums in this country are free, and that must be preserved – it has been a key driver in the increase in visitors.
But museums have also done great work in the past decade to reinvent themselves, integrating new technology and new experiences and attracting new audiences.
That evolution must continue. It would be amazing for example to have a single, easily accessible online visual archive of all the items in UK museums, including the millions of objects not on display.
I'd also like to see museums working in a wider and stronger network of partnerships. That means other cultural and educational bodies like libraries, schools, and arts centres, which have a relatively established track record in this area, but it also means working with the people who visit them and those that don't yet – the 50% of the country that did not go to a museum or gallery last year.
That requires museums to move beyond their established channels and fixed sites.