Changing times

Nicola Sullivan, 22.05.2015
Tackling the challenges ahead
I’ve recently joined the Museums Association (MA) as the staff writer and researcher and this week I attended my first members’ meeting at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

Not only did this give me the chance to have a look at the museum’s impressive natural history collection, which included a stuffed giraffe and a suspended whale skeleton, it also gave me a real insight into the challenges associated with running cultural institutions in the current climate.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of further cuts in public funding was at the forefront of everyone’s minds and there was a general consensus that times had irrevocably changed for museums, which need to be bold and proactive if they are to continue navigating the bumps in the road ahead.

David Fleming, the MA president and the director of National Museums Liverpool, spoke about the benefits of the MA’s campaign Museums Change Lives, which is based on the principle that all museums, however they are funded and whatever their subject matter, can support positive social change. A shrinking state, he added, meant that it was “about time museums found their voice".

Cuts to public funding meant that museums also face the ethical challenge associated with relying on money other than that coming from “accountable sources”. One advantage of funding from the public purse is that museums “always understood the deal”, which may not always be the case with sponsors and philanthropists.

The discussions around my table certainly attested to Fleming’s description of a changing landscape, which is affecting museums both in terms of culture and operations. When asked to come up with a list of key staff attributes, museum professionals in the South West spoke of the ability to take risks to inspire and engage new audiences and generate new income streams. Learning from peers, clear communication and knowledge of ethical entrepreneurship were also considered important.

Judging by the hearty discussion and lively debate that took place in Exeter there is little risk that museum professionals in the South West will fail to speak out about the issues that matter to their sector.