Recommendations: Relevant Collections

Museums have made great strides in growing audience numbers in recent years and now bring more people than ever into contact with public collections. However there is still much to do in making collections relevant to the widest possible audience.

“People feel empowered when they can relate to something or can influence something. We need to try to find out what people want to see and how they might want to get involved.”

Collections 2030 respondent, Scotland

Museums need to listen to audiences, users and stakeholders to understand how collections can be relevant and what stories they can tell. Objects and collections can be meaningful to a person, group, or community in ways that can be overlooked by curators working alone. We need new and critical public reinterpretations of collections and to think imaginatively about how to broaden the range of people to whom collections can be meaningful.

We recommend:

4. Research to understand public expectations of collections

It is clear from our research that there is a substantial gap between museums’ collections activity and the public understanding of collections. Museums need to understand better what their communities – visitors and non-visitors – want from collections if they are to diversify their audiences and remain relevant in the long term. Sector bodies should fund UK-wide deliberative public opinion research to enable museums to expand their knowledge of their communities and respond to these expectations.

5. Strategic collecting in partnership with communities

Collecting is under pressure from budget cuts and many museums are only able to collect reactively. Museums should collect strategically and in partnership with museum users and communities, recognising that many areas of collecting can be carried out at relatively low cost and with substantial social impact. Museums should also collaborate more closely with each other when collecting, and have better knowledge about what other institutions hold (see also recommendation 10).

“Collections work should never be done ‘for the sake of it’; the ‘use’ of our collections is increasingly the focus of our work… and therefore the ‘usefulness’ of our collections (and our collections work) should be at the forefront of our planning. So, documentation that does not enable use or access cannot be a priority.”

Collections 2030 respondent, London

6. A strategic approach to online collections

Museums need to bring their collections alive for growing audiences online. This means going beyond the standard model of putting collections information on a website. Museums need to create and curate online collections content in a way that speaks the language of the internet and recognises the different cultures and subcultures that exist online. Many museums will need ongoing support from sector organisations in implementing digital strategies for their collections work. This will also require substantial infrastructure (see also recommendation 10).

7. Use collections projects to create social impact, embed knowledge and build legacy

Collections projects are an opportunity to involve communities in co-curation, create long-lasting knowledge and institutional change. However, many collections projects – especially those with external funding – are carried out over two to three years, which is often too short to develop strong community ties and results in the loss of knowledge and expertise after the end of the project. We encourage funders to consider longer-term projects of up to five years.

“Make collections as open as possible, especially where communities might be local, national and international. Make their content easy to share and re-use by taking down paywalls and providing open licensing. Within many museums, a digital touchpoint can have as much, or more value, than a physical visit.”

Collections 2030 respondent, London
Absolute Unit – Museum of English Rural Life
Case study: Bringing collections to online audiences at the Museum of English Rural Life

In recent years, social media has become one of the Museum of English Rural Life’s (Merl) most powerful tools for reaching and engaging with a large international audience. The museum has worked actively to cultivate an online audience for its apparently niche collection of objects representing English rural life – and has found huge success as a result. Online audiences have been delighted by a huge variety of content, including the museum’s Absolute Unit meme, based on a photograph of a prize sheep, and the story of a doodling schoolboy from its 18th-century archive.

Merl’s social media users reflect its success, growing from 9,700 Twitter followers in April 2018 to more than 100,000 less than a year later. Over this period the museum had 108 million impressions and 6 million engagements with its content. Merl has even launched a range of merchandise associated with its social media. And this growing online presence has raised the profile of the museum locally as well.

Merl puts its success in this area down to its decision to treat social media seriously as an engagement tool – and not merely a communications tool. The museum recognised that there is huge demand among online audiences for compelling stories and discussion of shared histories and cultures, and that museums are perfectly placed to satisfy that need. It also recognised that the internet comes with its own culture and ways of communicating. People want to hear about stories and get involved, and that means museums need to adapt their content accordingly. Most people are not on social media to read a gallery label, they are there to be entertained.

Merl also attributes its success to a few simple things: developing a unique and humorous voice, choosing and creating well-crafted stories from the collections, and interacting with followers. It also requires a blend of digital marketing skills coupled with a deep knowledge of collections and their context, and the involvement of the whole museum in supporting this work.

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