We are the oldest museums association in the world, established in 1889.
Starting with a handful of museum professionals, we now represent over 14,000 individual members, 1,800 museums and 300 commercial members.
Here is a brief timeline of our story:
We are founded
A small group of museum professionals founded the world’s first museums association to foster mutual cooperation among curators and institutions. Our inaugural meeting was held at the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in York on 20 June 1889.
In 1889 we started out with just 11 members primarily from regional museums including Liverpool Museum, Stockport Museum, Sunderland Museum, Brighton Museum and Weston Park. Our inaugural meeting was hosted by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in York.
We hold our first annual conference
Meeting in Liverpool, the first annual conference was a small affair. It is now Europe’s largest event of its kind for museum people.
Museums Journal is first published
The first Museums Journal had the strapline “the organ of the Museums Association”. Today it is a vibrant print and online magazine packed with thought leadership, practical advice, peer reviews, comment and debate.
We win recognition for the role of museums in education
We believe learning is at the heart of museums, and one of our earliest policy achievements was to ensure that the Education Act of 1918 permitted local authorities to fund museum visits by schools in England and Wales, and to transfer museum powers to their education authorities.
We continue to promote the crucial role museums play in learning to this day. Read about our new Learning and Engagement Manifesto.
We run our first training course
This was a five-day course and included presentations such as ‘Fundamental Points in Museum Practice’ as well as study tours of museums.
Today we run a variety of events and training throughout the year.
At the start of the 20th century, the museum profession was still relatively undefined. A prospective curator once wrote to a leading academic for advice on the skills he might need for a museum career. “Stick a damn label on the damn specimen,” came the reply.
The launch of the Museum Diploma
In the 1930s we created a formal Museum Diploma, with a syllabus featuring instruction in general museum work and more specialised branches of museum work, as well as many practical elements – including a dreaded final exam in which students were presented with a table of assorted objects to identify.
Today we run the Associateship of the Museums Association – our work-based award that encourages mentoring, peer learning and continuing professional development in any type of museum role.
The diploma ran for many years and informed the development of the UK’s first school of museum studies at the University of Leicester and the elements that make up other academic museum qualifications.
MA Conference held in Dublin
This was the last time that our annual conference was held overseas. It was also held in Dublin in 1912, when our president at the time was Count George Noble Plunkett – a prominent figure in the Irish Independence movement – find out more about his radical history here.
The conference was also held in Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels twice – and we continue our international work and outlook in 21st century with more international members than ever.
We pioneer IT in collections management
The museum profession was one of the earliest sectors to recognise the potential of IT for documentation. In the 1970s we set up the Information Retrieval Group, which later went on to become the Collections Trust.
Today our Empowering Collections campaign promotes the huge potential of digital technology to bring collections closer to people.
We take action to improve diversity
Our Diversify programme aimed to make the profession more accessible to BAME and disabled people, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It ran until 2011 and helped 130 professionals start their career in museums.
We recognise that there is still a long way to go until we have a truly diverse and inclusive sector. Our work in this area has evolved from supporting individual traineeships to driving structural transformation. In 2015 we launched our workforce development scheme, Transformers, which supports people to radically change their organisations.
The MA has a long history of campaigning for a well paid and representative workforce. In the 1910s, in response to museum adverts seeking to recruit only “gentlemen of private means” as curators, we published salary guidelines calling for museum workers to receive equivalent pay to staff at other public bodies.
We set out our vision for collections of the future
Collections for the Future was a groundbreaking initiative that aimed to transform how museum workers think about and use their collections. It led to our first fund for collections-focused work, Effective Collections, which was supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
Our 2019 report, Empowering Collections, builds on this legacy, setting out a vision for people-centred collections that are relevent, empowering and dynamic.
We launch our Museums Change Lives campaign
Our campaign for socially engaged museums at the heart of their communities, Museums Change Lives, was a radical step forward for the sector. We believe in the power of museums to improve people’s lives, enhancing health and wellbeing, inspiring reflection and debate, and creating better places to live and work, and this vision has been embraced by the public and policymakers across the UK.
Museums Change Lives continues to be our flagship campaign and every year we recognise the best socially engaged practice through the Museums Change Lives Awards.
Our Museums Change Lives vision has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic and has inspired museums around the world to harness their social impact.
Membership reaches record levels
In recent years we have transformed membership to be more inclusive and affordable to everyone working in or with museums. More people than ever are joining the MA.
Today we are proud to represent over 16,000 individuals, institutions and commercial members.