A new standard

Alistair Brown, 02.08.2017
How to improve museum Accreditation
When I mention the topic of museum Accreditation in the course of meetings around the country, the response tends to include the word ‘paperwork’ and a roll of the eyes.

The Museum Accreditation Scheme will be 30 years old next year, and to, em, celebrate, Arts Council England (ACE), Museums Galleries Scotland, the Museums, Archives and Libraries Division of the Welsh government and the Northern Ireland Museums Council have decided to review the scheme. It’s not exactly fireworks and rousing speeches – but then the scheme itself has evoked increasingly mixed emotions over recent years. It’s seen by many as a bit of a chore, and the team at ACE is currently struggling with a backlog of submissions.

Yet at a recent meeting at ACE, I was reminded of many of the good things about Accreditation. Its origins in the 1980s come from a real desire within museums to sort out the tangle of collections that had built up over preceding decades. Curators themselves wanted a standard to which all would be held – and accreditation acted as a focal point around which museums could base their activities and aim for continuous improvement in the management and use of their collections.

That approach has had clear benefits. Museums have changed radically in the last 30 years, and while it would be foolish to attribute all the improvements to an industry standard, Accreditation has nevertheless played a part by encouraging museums to make their collections and venues better organised and more accessible.

For many small and medium-sized museums, accreditation has also been a means to demonstrate their seriousness. Museums such as the volunteer-run Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden have used Accreditation as a gateway for funding, donations of artworks and partnerships with other organisations. There are many more like them. Indeed, there are now over 1700 Accredited museums in the UK.

So Accreditation still matters. But what of those eye rolls? How can the scheme be improved so that museums feel the same sense of ownership of the scheme as they did 30 years ago?

The answer might seem simple – less paperwork. And yes, a simplification of processes and increased use of online forms ought to priority number one from the review. But there is a larger question about what accreditation should be for after 30 years. Should it simply be a collections management standard and revert to its 1980s roots? Or should it continue to grow into a public-facing award, guaranteeing that a museum is meeting standards across all of its activities?

To my mind, it would be a shame to see a simplification of processes turn in to a hollowing out of the standard itself. Accreditation should be just as much about supporting a valuable public offer as a behind-the-scenes collections management standard.

But this debate has yet to run its course – museums across the UK will have the opportunity to comment on the future of Accreditation during a period of consultation this autumn. So whether you’re a true believer or an eye-roller, this will be an opportunity to make sure that the Museum Accreditation Scheme is fit for the next 30 years.

Alistair Brown is the Museums Association's policy officer

If you want to provide feedback or comments on museum Accreditation to the review team, please email
review.accreditation@artscouncil.org.uk

Comments

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Anonymous
25.08.2017, 00:44
I expect when it started Accreditation was seen as a means of inspiring every museum to reach some kind of quality threshold and offer reassurance to other stakeholders that any museum that was accredited was reliable, competent, effective and worth supporting.
Over time, of course, like any exercise of this nature, people have sought to improve, adding this and that additional area of museum work to reflect how the sector has changed and evolved. Added to that the process has gone digital so the amount of information being gathered and drilled down has grown exponentially. This results inevitably in the creation of an ever more demanding and time consuming process. We all know where these processes lead, because we can look at schools and Ofsted or the many quangos who watch over the doctors, nurses and staff of the National Health Service. Even worse, like countless regulatory systems in 21st century Britain (e.g. building regs and the cladding of buildings), the regulators have created such a complicated system that they cannot even manage the process themselves any more, whether by design or default. It would be a sad situation where people start looking at Accreditation as a box ticking exercise because they are not convinced anyone is actually checking what these ticks mean in any serious way anymore. We do need baseline standards that everyone should meet and if you don't meet then you can't pass yourself off as a proper museum; otherwise all sorts of dubious practices will take root. However, we also have to resist the official fantasy that you can create the perfect museum through regulation with the constant checking and rechecking of everything that is done in museums.
The best people to strike the balance are those who work in museums rather than leaving the decision to the bureaucrats in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. They can think they know best even when they say in consultations that they don't. Officials always devise official solutions to the problem, and we need something more imaginative if it is going to last 30 years.