Webchat: Museums 2020

How can we use collections to achieve impact?
The Museums Association held a live Museums 2020 webchat on 25 October with an expert panel discussing how museums can use their collections to achieve impact.

Museums 2020 looks at the difference that museums make to individuals, communities, society, and the environment. There has been discussion over whether or not focus on impact comes at the price of collections and vice-versa, or whether museums should focus on both.

Questions and answers from the webchat can be viewed below, and there's still a chance to add your views and comments to the thread.

The panel included: Maurice Davies, head of policy and communications at the MA; Sally Colvin, MA collections coordinator; Sally MacDonald, director of museums and public engagement at UCL; David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool; Gaby Porter, independent museum consultant; Hannah Crowdy, interpretation manager at National Museums Northern Ireland; Barbara Bartl, museum officer (collections and premises) at Newport Museum and Art Gallery; Fiona Talbott, head of museums, libraries and archives, HLF; Carolyn Dalton, museum manager, Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery; Christopher Kirby, head of collections, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum; and Lucy Harland, director, Lucidity Media.

Please login to post comments and examples of how your museum is using collections to achieve impact.

Comments

Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 14:07
Thanks everyone - and please send further comments on Museums 2020 soon (the consultation formally closes next week): museums2020@museumsassociation.org
Lucy Harland
MA Member
Director, Lucidity Media
25.10.2012, 14:15
I'm interested in something you brought up when you ran a session in Glasgow - about the role of permanent displays and whether/how museums should think about moving away from them or assuming they're the best way forward. As belts tighten, will the capital projects dry up or will they continue to dominate?
25.10.2012, 14:42
Constantly changing exhibitions/displays cost money too, especially to do properly, could be argued that changing too regularly is an ineffective use of resources.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 14:00
OK, we've run out of time now, so I think we'll wrap it up there. Thank you very much to everyone who participated, and a very big thanks to our expert panel, for some fascinating insights to feed into the Museums 2020 discussion.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 14:03
Good. This could become addictive.
Carolyn Dalton
MA Member
Museum Manager, Doncaster Museum
25.10.2012, 13:47
I think that part of the problem is that there are so many different impacts. The research impacts, where work on museum collections adds to the sum of human knowledge is perhaps easier to quantify through the information published and how it is then used. While it is harder to establish, conversations that I have had seem to show that there is a positive impact on society of the security of feeling that their heritage is being properly (hopefully!) cared for. Then there is the impact on each individual as they interact with museum collections, which will be different for everyone. I wondered whether there has been any research on the impact on people of reading books, which might help us?
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:55
A common problem in evaluation is that a project, or an organisation, can have too many objectives, which makes it very hard to research (without an unreasonably large budget) - and possible hard to manage. The Museums 2020 discussion document challenges museums to be explicit about their priorities for impact. Other public-service organisations (hospitals, schools...) seem to manage to clarify their most important impacts (and then measure them) - so I fear that's what museums will need to try to do. There will always be other, incidental impacts too, of coruse. It will help museums make difficult choices and be accountable for their work. (However, museums are very diverse and each museum is likely to have subtly different prioirities for its impact - which will not make things easy for the sector as a whole.)
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:35
Another one for the panel: what ways could museums (both individual museums and the sector as a whole) change in the future in order to achieve more impact?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 13:53
Well attracting a wider cross-section of the population would be a good aim! And in order to do this we need more radical and lateral thinking, more ambition and determination, more partnerships, better advocacy, better sectoral leadership. And a strong nerve.
Sally Colvin
MA Member
Collections Coordinator, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:52
Thanks Paddy, just an easy question for the last few minutes! One part of the answer has to be through collaboration, both between museums and with wider partners. To cite yet another collections fund project in this discussion, in West Yorkshire a group of museum services are working with Visit Yorkshire and owners of relevant buildings to create a textile heritage trail, drawing on their combined collections and locations around the region. Projects with this kind of innovative, collaborative approach are on the rise.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:47
That's the Museums 2020 challenge! It starts by identifying the impact(s) you want to have and being suitably ambitious about it. In Museums 2020 workshops, particpants have identified the need to change to deliver particular impacts, and a lot of the change identified is about the internal culture, skills and partnerships.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:52
In the context of this discussion though: should, for instance, museums do more to get their collections out of storage? Should English museums have a codified national strategy? Should there be a UK-wide strategy for museums?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 14:01
Hi Patrick - the collections question is something of a red herring, but your other two are more intriguing. It's certainly true that without some form of sectoral business plan (a strategy) museums look like we have an indeterminate purpose and an intangible value, and this makes us extremely vulnerable. We don't have many friends in high places, and we need to explain our worth more clearly than ever before. A plan of some kind would really help. And the MA should take the lead because no-one else will.
Simon Carter
Director, Avoncroft Museum
25.10.2012, 13:18
Again, not a question, but a comment. At Avoncroft our collection is our Museum - what we collect (historic buildings) are what our museum is and visitors engage with each of them on every visit (or sometimes don't because they come to enjoy our green countryside setting for a walk). The discussion by its very nature seems to regard collections as something separate to being a museum - things that if staff had time, they'd get out and do more with - and from past work in museums they sometimes are - but surely if an organisation hasn't pinned down the very essence of what it does - and what its core collection and displays do, it will consider collections as being separate to its purpose. We're fortunate, apart from a small amount of stored collections which are held to support the core collection - we have a collection of 30 large permanently displayed objects - and every day the public visit them and use both our interpretation of them and their own imaginations to enrich their understanding and we hope they will always have impact.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:34
Simon, I think your comment gets to the heart of the issue: in an organisation that has clarity about its purpose, collections (and collections knowledge and collections staff) will be integral to impact and not something separate.
Mike Howe
Chief Curator, British Geological Survey
25.10.2012, 13:18
Using collections to achieve impact firstly requires a collection with the potential to achieve impact, and secondly, the means to do so. At the British Geological Survey, we manage collections of international scientific and historical significance, yet our public display facilities are limited. We achieve (science) impact by promoting web access with online databases linked to high resolution images - see for example our North Sea Oil well core images (e.g. http://www.largeimages.bgs.ac.uk/iip/index.html?id=20120613/S00044914) and we are leading a JISC funded collaborative project to make 3D digital models and high resolution images and stereo anaglyphs of fossil type specimens in UK collections available through a single web portal (see project blog for further details - http://gb3dtypefossils.blogspot.co.uk/ ). Web statistics and user comments then give a reasonable measure of impact. I believe that the research impact is maximised by the provision of easy to find high quality images/models and metadata. Selected images can then be reused for exhibits aimed at the general public
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:31
I think that's a perfect example of using collections to achieve impact: actively making collections and information available so they can be used by researchers. There's a caveat, which is that the eventual research needs, of course, to have useful impacts - or at least indetifiable public benefits. Academic researchers (encouraged by their funders) are getting much more skilled at describing their impacts.
Hilary McGowan
MA Member
Museums Consultant, Hilary McGowan
25.10.2012, 13:18
But while we do need to be relevant, we shouldn't abdicate our responsiblity. I agree that the thoughts of our audiences are important, but surely it's up to us to give the framework for those ideas to be shared, and to provoke our audiences into thinking? And the factual knowledge we hold is a starting point, and that is the knowledge curators should hold.
Carolyn Dalton
MA Member
Museum Manager, Doncaster Museum
25.10.2012, 13:06
I would agree with Graham that the collections that are held for research purposes (archaeological excavations are another key example) are often forgotten in discussions because they generally don't form part of the public displays. The value of many museum collections can often be wider than the constituency that the museum is primarily serving. Many local authority museums for instance have collections that are regionally or even nationally important. Unless these collections are Designated the local authority is paying for the care of collections (whether objects or specimens) that have a wider value and potential impact than that of the local authority area concerned. I feel that this has been a hidden time-bomb which is now coming to the fore as local authorities seek to concentrate their remaining resources on their own residents. The fate of collections that have a wider significance and yet are not seen to have a marked contribution to/impact on that Local Authority area (for example research collections that are not displayed or even displayable) I think will come more into question over the next few years.
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 13:14
Hi Gemma. This is a really big question. Designation only goes so far. If UK funding models at government level could really address this - conceptualising these resources as a distributed national collection - we would be in a different place. Such models would also need to address the knowledge around collections, be it in museums (it often isnt), in communities of interest, in universities etc.
Sally Colvin
MA Member
Collections Coordinator, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:26
While I completely agree that there is a risk local authorities can let go of collections with wider significance than their polling area, I can’t help going back to the point in Collections for the Future (now 7 years old) that research collections need to be actively researched, not just stored. Being undisplayable doesn’t mean being unusable, and if a research collection is not in use then it’s natural to question whether a museum should keep it, with all the costs associated.
25.10.2012, 13:35
Surely that links to the decision-making at the musuem concerned? If it chooses to ignore the importance of a particular collection it has and gets rid of the staff researching it then you will create the problem. I appreciate that tough decisoins need to be taken, it just appears that far too often they appear to ill-informed.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:45
But for large (and so expensive to keep) research collections, surely research has to be done by far more people than just the staff of the museum?
25.10.2012, 13:48
Absolutely. However, you still need someone who knows the collection in post to enable that external research. Even when a collection has been thoroughly documented and is available online you still need someone who knows that collection to be able to service external enquries/loans.
Mike Howe
Chief Curator, British Geological Survey
25.10.2012, 13:33
The most important requirement for a research collection is that is is readily available when required. In this day an age this means an online database, possibly with images, etc. We hold material that may not have been looked at for 150 years, but suddenly becomes scientifically crucial.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:38
At the risk of being controversial (ha!), there is a hard question that needs to be asked about costs and benefits. OK to the principle of keeping things, unseen, for 150 years in case they turn out to be scientifically crucial - but doing that has a financial (and environmental) cost and we need to have some sense that the potential research benefit is likely to justify that cost.
Mike Howe
Chief Curator, British Geological Survey
25.10.2012, 13:53
I totally agree with you - and this is where the skill of the specialist curator comes in. I would suggest it can easily be a hundred years before the impact of an individual curator can be properly assessed.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:02
There has been a lot of polarisation in recent debates on the MA website over collections and impact as though the two are mutually exclusive - what are the panel's thoughts on this?
Chris Kirby
MA Member
Head of Collections and Programmes, Coventry Heritage and Arts Trust
25.10.2012, 14:02
There is a simple reality: collections cost money and to justify their existence they need to show impact. Museums cannot exist without effecting the landscape in which they reside and collections (with the help of skilled staff) are the best way that the benefit of museums is tangiable to funders and audiences alike.
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 13:24
Hi Patrick. As you - I think - imply, I would say this is a sterile debate. A collection that nobody knows about or encounters can have no impact. Most people would say that a museum without collections is not a museum. For a museum to have impact it has to be using its collections to do interesting and worthwhile things, with and for people. (Although to take issue with myself almost immediately, we should remember always that impact is not always a positive thing)
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 13:23
Hi Patrick - It seems to me that impact is what we are trying to achieve, and there are many ways of doing this - including using collections in a variety of ways. I don't understand why anyone would dispute this. I can conceive of museums having plenty of impact through doing things that are not entirely reliant on collections, but that doesn't mean that I think collections are unimportant in a museum! We need a more flexible approach to museum work than ruling out the notion that if collections are not at the heart of something (such as an exhibition, or an anti-racism project involving schoolchildren) then that something is somehow less worthy, or cannot have value (or impact).
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:11
They're obviously not mutually exclusive - but I've found that people often find it hard to link the two. There are great examples of collections being used to achieve impact (like, for example, those mentioned by Gina Allnatt below). But often people talk about collections as if they are somehow separate from impact. Surely the whole purpose of having and caring for collections is to make an impact - whether that impact is something like helping elderly people reflect and remember, supporting learning by children, or serving as source material for researchers to create new knowledge. If it's just sitting quietly in store, however beautifully packed and managed, a collection won't be achieving its potential. At the Museums 2020 workshops I've run this week in Cardiff and Exeter, people were clear that museums need to make themselves relevant - in part, that means making the collections relevant, and using them to achieve more great impacts.
Hannah Crowdy
MA Member
Interpretation Manager, National Museums Northern Ireland
25.10.2012, 13:26
The shouldn't be mutually exclusive, as museums ARE their collections - if they didn't have the collections they simply wouldn't exist. I've lost count of the times I've rejected ideas that were brilliant conceptually but could not be realised due to a lack of collections (both tangible and intangible) to present and interpret them. So I am uneasy that this divison between collections and impact exits - sometimes I read reports of initiatives that sound amazing and are to be applauded for making an impact but I can't for the life of me find how they relate to museum collections. We're not social services, and there are specialist organisations and individuals dedicated to that work, so we should concentrate on the collections that are (excuse the cliches) our lifeblood and our USP
25.10.2012, 13:18
The biggest problem here is that there is no lack of skillset- there is a lack of funds to create jobs to care for these specialist collections. Unfortunately that is the main reason they are sitting in store rooms and gathering dust. My traineeship in Biology Curation was started because there was a lack of natural sciences curators in the West Midlands. I think now that several of us have been trained in this field, it isn't that there is a lack of skills- there's a lack of jobs. Most jobs I see advertised are in London or other places down South. Not sure how to solve this one.
Chris Kirby
MA Member
Head of Collections and Programmes, Coventry Heritage and Arts Trust
25.10.2012, 13:54
Hi Gina, you are right there is a lack of natural science curators in the West Midlands and the lack of opportunity for them to be employed and this means it is more likely that natural science collections are being less used and accessed. The job landscape is bleak but greater partnerships with natural science department in Universities and tapping in to community natural history groups could provide some but not all the answers.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 12:43
HI Jemma - the miners' strike and Government's reaction was all about politics, so you shouldn't hesitate in exploring the political issues - why wouldn't you? I'd be very surprised if a Barnsley audience for this exhibition would settle for anything less, and it's a great opportunity for the museum to develop a new relationship with local people.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 12:46
Thanks David. Is there any advice you would give Jemma on what she might do if an individual or organisation used the exhibition for their own political ends? Or is that something you just have to live with for an exhibition of this nature?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 13:08
Hi Patrick - I can't think of any museum exhibition about anything, anywhere, that hasn't been influenced by someone! We all have our beliefs and prejudices (call these political if you like); it's simply not possible for museums to attain some kind of neutrality. Ultimately, as a visitor I am receiving messages from the exhibition organisers, and it's dishonest to pretend otherwise. The challenge for museums is to engage people's brains and emotions, not to give the right answer.
Fiona Talbott
MA Member
Head of Museums, Libraries
25.10.2012, 12:40
HLF's Collecting Cultures programme, although set up to help museums acquire through purchase, also has the aims of enhancing knowledge and skills of museum staff and making a step change in the ability to develop their collections for future public use. We've just embarked on the impact study of that now so although I can't answer your question yet I think there will be some interesting lessons for the sector later this year.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 12:50
Thanks Fiona. It's a great programme. Would you be able to tell us a little more about the impact study? What sorts of things will you be measuring? Presumably it will it be more qualitative than quantitative?
Fiona Talbott
MA Member
Head of Museums, Libraries
25.10.2012, 13:07
Over the four years to date we've built up a huge amount of data on museums' view of how their project is performing against out original objectives. We'll use that information and a qualitative survey of the participants and key stakeholders as to what they they think the impact has been, One of the areas I'm particularly interested in is the impact that the process of collecting has had in both developing new audiences and involving audiences in collecting. . It seesm to me that its one way of democratising the museum
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 13:16
Hi Fiona. Indeed - I think we should be asking museum users to set the questions, not just answer them.
Hannah Guthrie
MA Member
National and International Programmes and Projects Manager, Imperial War Museum
25.10.2012, 12:35
I'm interested in hearing more about how we need to change how we evaluate. Counting numbers is easy, how do we measure impact?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
25.10.2012, 12:53
Hi Hannah - measuring the impact of anything isn't easy, but knowing as much as you can about audiences is a good place for museums to start. In Liverpool we do a huge amount of research on who visits our museums, why, where they come from etc etc. And we do this so that we know what to do next - it informs all management decisions.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 12:42
Hi Hannah. I've been looking at evaluation a lot recently (for a project called Evaluating Evaluation) and I agree with you that the way we evaluate could change. But the first question is why we are evaluating - is it to learn and reflect, or is it to measure? If you're interesting in measuring then the first thing necessary is incredibly clear objectives and real clarity about the intended impacts. Once you have that clarity about the impact you're trying to achieve then it shuld be possible to design a research methodology to assess how you're doing. But it won't be straightforward and the findings may well be inconclusive. So then the question becomes wny you want to measure in the first place... I can write more about that if anyone's interested enough to have got this far!
Hannah Crowdy
MA Member
Interpretation Manager, National Museums Northern Ireland
25.10.2012, 12:55
Personally I feel that evaluation is too often focussed explicitly on single projects and exhibitions, whereas if it's too be really worthwhile it has to be informing future practice and decision-making in museums. Certainly it helped me to make a case for evaluation in my organisation when I got people to see that it could be used to help us work more effectively and efficiently. So the impact is not just in terms of a particular initiative, it's also about the longer term impact for the museum and, therefore, its visitors
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 13:06
Hi Hannah. I do agree that evaluating single projects is rarely very worthwhile, unless it's done in the context of evaluating longer term outcomes and institutional and personal learning. Often, too, one off evaluation is driven by the need to tell a funder how well something's gone and I think we often do our funders and stakeholders an injustice in assuming they just want to hear good news. However, I think the real challenge lies in moving from evaluating outcomes (whether of programmes or types of activity that the museum might generate) to evaluating societal impact of a museum or museums, which requires rigour, widespread collaboration and sustained effort. This for me is one of the real challenges of Museums 2020.
Hannah Crowdy
MA Member
Interpretation Manager, National Museums Northern Ireland
25.10.2012, 13:18
Hi Sally, You're right on both counts, that measuring societal impact is very important but also very difficult! We'd use the GLOs in the Inspiring Learning for All Framework a lot (I know the framework is old now but I still find it useful and am not aware of a good successor) but we always look at the GSOs with trepidation and a 'where on earth do we start?' attitude
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:24
Just to clarify for readers new to evaluation frameworks: GLOs = generic learning outcomes and GSOs = generic social outcomes.
Fiona Talbott
MA Member
Head of Museums, Libraries
25.10.2012, 13:17
Speaking as a funder I should say that we want genuine evaluations of our projects so it can be a learning experience for both the applicant and ourselves. However I agree with Sally that the perception is that we only want to hear the positives in case it jeopardises future grants. That's not the case but it is understandable.
Hannah Guthrie
MA Member
National and International Programmes and Projects Manager, Imperial War Museum
25.10.2012, 12:53
I'd add that we need to budget properly for this kind of work. And commit to spend time answering the questions Maurice mentions above. I think this is a key thing to include in the 2020 debate.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 12:30
Hello everyone, and welcome to the Museums 2020 Q&A. If you have any questions that you would like to ask our expert panel then do please post them here.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 12:33
One question I wanted to ask of the panel was, can you give us one example where you have used collections to achieve impact, and how you measured that impact?
Sally Colvin
MA Member
Collections Coordinator, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:09
Almost all of our Effective Collections or Collections Fund projects would have a good story to tell here. However, one of my favourites is still Old Tools New Uses where Scottish museums disposed of duplicate domestic technology items (sewing machines etc.) via a charity to go back into use in countries in Africa. In another example much closer to home, Paxton House has used the conservation of their gorgeous 18th-century costume collection to teach and inspire fashion students. The possibilities are endless!
25.10.2012, 12:50
Some examples I've either worked on or observed:The Manchester Museum recently worked with the Manchester African-Caribbean carers group as part of the We Face Forward citywide exhibition on West African Art. As part of the exhibition (which at the Manchester Museum focused on Anansi stories) objects (from the anthropology and natural sciences collections) were taken to a care home where they evoked memories among the eldery people there, who were then able to tell stories they remembered from their childhood. The objects were then displayed alongside video of people telling these stories.Objects are used quite regularly in "Big Saturday" events at the Manchester Museum. We usually have handling tables where people can learn about several objects at once at the importance behind them. For example, we recently had a table on giant insects, and having several specimens on display was a great draw for families who were keen to ask questions.In terms of measuring impact, visitor numbers and feedback are always good tools. Though personally I enjoy the look of wonder on a kid's face when they see a giant spider for the first time!
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 12:55
I think those are fantastic examples. One of the most enjoyable days I ever had at a museum was the centenary of Leicester Museum. The had several curators out in the gallery with objects and specimens for show to visitors and it was so much more powerful (for me and my kids) than seeing things neatky arranged in glass cases. But that was a once-in-a century sopecial day! More museums could have collections out with people demonstrating them and encouraging handling more of the time.
24.10.2012, 17:11
Hmmmm - I see that there is an article on this site dealing with the myth of the apolitical museum. Would it be so terrible if political points were made about the Miners Strike?
Jemma Conway
MA Member
Community Heritage Curator, Barnsley Museum Service
25.10.2012, 09:32
Hi Rose,I think it would be hard to cover the miners strike properly without being political. It was more of a question really as to how best to deal with the issues, thinking about impact and how visitors/communities from the area will interact with the topic.
Sarah Butler
MA Member
Regal Heritage Access Officer, Tenbury Town Council
22.10.2012, 11:30
Less of a question and more of a thought - can we give more impact to our collections by giving over more control of what objects we display and how to the people who visit us? After all, if we can relate the stories we're trying to tell to objects that people connect with, they're surely more likely to have impact. And how better to know what objects our visitors connect with than to ask them?
Chris Kirby
MA Member
Head of Collections and Programmes, Coventry Heritage and Arts Trust
25.10.2012, 13:21
Hi Sarah, I think you absolutely right in giving greater authority to the views of our audiences. Picking up on Sally's point about taking collections on to the road, I think museums have to learn to let go and take more risks in how and where they use collections, for example, empty shop spaces are common sight in the current recession and can could be used to create a pop up museum venue where museum objects are placed in a setting that seems more relevant and inviting to some audiences. Obviously some practical considerations here but the benefits could be huge.
Barbara Bartl
MA Member
Museum Officer (Collections
25.10.2012, 13:16
Can we take this in a different direction as well maybe? Can we give more impact to our collections by giving over some control of what we collect? Could we, should we involve those who visit in those decisions?
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 12:55
Hi Sarah. Undoubtedly we can! I think we can think beyond this. 'We' dont have to display things and people don't have to visit us, I don't think. We could have far more impact if we took collections and staff on the road more, either temporarily or permanently. I think we can learn a lot from the experience of those museums who've repatriated human remains to indigenous groups - almost always those 'disposals' have had a positive impact for all parties, and have been the beginning rather than the end of a discussion. I'm all for a less retentive approach!
Gaby Porter
MA Member
Consultant, Gaby Porter Associates
25.10.2012, 12:17
Hi Sarah, I like your question (yes, it is a question) and the thinking that underpins it. I'm fascinated by this word 'control'! Public purpose is at the heart of all public museums, and our role is to enable people to engage with collections so that they find meaning and benefit. Stories - 'our' stories as well as 'their' stories - are a powerful and potent way to do this.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 12:33
I was at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter yesterday and they have a wonderful philosophy that they are a place of a million thoughts - and those thoughts are the thoughts of their audience, inspired by the museums and what it does. There's a line in the Museums 2020 discussion paper (in fact a quote from David Anderson) that says museums should treat their audience as being at least as knowledgable as museum staff
Hannah Crowdy
MA Member
Interpretation Manager, National Museums Northern Ireland
25.10.2012, 13:04
I'm not saying I share this attitude, but the flip side of what Maurice has said above is that it de-values museum professionals and their expertise. Nobody encourages 'have a go' doctors or lawyers, for example, as we have respect for their professional training and skills. I've yet to meet anyone who believes the public should have no say at all, but it's where the boundary is and how that boundary is communicated and handled that is the concern. Another thing which I mentioned at the SHCG conference this year is that people really are intrigued (!) by museum experts and want to learn from them, so they can feel short-changed if museums are only presenting visitor viewpoints at the expense of that valuable curatorial knowledge.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:28
Not sure I agree with you, Hannah - the Royal Albert memorial Museum is packed with expertise and knowledge; it's more that the stance is to treat the audience as intelligent and thoughtful. Museums need access to huge amounts of expertise (inside and outside the organisation) if they are to maximise their potential. But they need to get that expertise out, shared with people who benefit from it. As Hannah says, people want to hear from experts - and as Mike Howe from the British Geological Survey describes about, researchers need expert staff to help them access information. Like collections, expertise has to be actively shared and used to have an impact.
Hannah Crowdy
MA Member
Interpretation Manager, National Museums Northern Ireland
25.10.2012, 13:39
I said it wasn't my view, just a view I come up against a lot! So whilst I don't share the view I don't think we can ignore the fact that there is a genuine fear out there amongst professionals, probably the result of a lack of understanding. So maybe that is something for Museums 2020 to tackle - what exactly we mean by public involvement, what the benefits are and how such involvement can work alongside curatorial knowledge, using examples such as the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. I assume that winning hearts and minds will be crucial if Museums 2020 itself is to have any impact
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 13:42
Sorry Hannah, I misread your orgininal comment and would like to say I entirely agree with you!
Lucy Harland
MA Member
Director, Lucidity Media
25.10.2012, 14:10
I am all for professionalism but not when it's at the exclusion of being open to other ways of thinking and behaving - and the difficulty for museums is that most of them contain a very wide range of professional skills. For some people, the definition of being a museum professional relates to having an academic/curatorial collections knowledge but for others it's about being a professional museum communicator and enabler who understands the medium and its opportunities and challenges. So a threat to one person's professionalism through a democratisation of access to the creation of messages in the museum is an opportunity for the other's.
Jemma Conway
MA Member
Community Heritage Curator, Barnsley Museum Service
19.10.2012, 10:24
We're using our collections to commemorate 30 years since the miner's strike in 2014. As community curator I'm also seeking donations from individuals affected by the strike. What can I do to make sure different factions within the mining community don't use our collections for their own political gain and thus reduce the meaningful impact of our work? And how do we tell those sensitive and political stories in a balanced way, still achieving high impact?
22.10.2012, 10:49
Hi Jemma,The Galleries of Justice in Nottingham put on an exhibition to commemorate the 25th anniversary of strike, called 'Strike 1984' I thought it was really well done so it might be worth contacting them to see how they dealt with this issue? There's some more information on it here: http://mus.ms/OVLplP
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 12:47
Hi Jemma. You highlight a really important issue and one that many of us struggle with. Personally I don't have a problem with anyone using museums for political gain - I'd like to see a bit more of it! - as museums operate to highly politicised agendas already. But the challenge I think is to frame or host a productive - if heated- debate. I don't know that it is possible to work out all the angles in advance, or do anything much except to agree as a staff (and governance) team how one might keep talking and listening even when things get tough. There is a session about this at MA Conference if you are going (shameless plug), and an issue of Museum Management and Curatorship forthcoming, edited by Bernadette Lynch, which you might find useful.
Jemma Conway
MA Member
Community Heritage Curator, Barnsley Museum Service
25.10.2012, 09:21
Thank you
Essex Havard
External Relationships
18.10.2012, 11:37
Sadly I cannot take part in the live discussion so I apologise for lobbing this grenade and walking away!Are museums the best organisations to comprehensively comment on what their "impact" is and/or should/could be? Museums exist in a physical, geographical and societal context. There are many supportive organisations/agencies outside the museum sector who would gladly feed into discussions on "impact". Where is their forum?Is this discussion simply the museum sector speaking to itself? Again...I will now retreat to a safe distance...
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 12:46
We're about to commission research into public attituudes into the purpose of museums and their role in society and I hope that will do a little to broaden the range of views we take into account as we hone our ideas about museum jimpact. But there's one thing I'm sure about, which is that the most apporpriate impacts will vary enormously between individual museums, depending on their context, history and assets.
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 12:38
Hi Essex. I completely agree. We need to take soundings from all sorts of organisations outside our sector - but sympathetic and interested as you say- to get a view on how best to measure our impact, as a calibration of our own views.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
18.10.2012, 10:33
What fundamental shifts are needed (if any) to ensure a long-lasting change to the way museums respond and work with audiences and communities? Is it possible that fringe work and one-off projects will contribute towards wider changes or do we need more of a radical shake-up? If so, what?
Fiona Talbott
MA Member
Head of Museums, Libraries
25.10.2012, 13:36
It has to part of the culture of the organisation at all levels. It's not just enough to have a senior staff member lead in this area or to see it as just one of the functions of the museum - it really is about power shifts in the way you operate to democratise the museum.
Sally Colvin
MA Member
Collections Coordinator, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:44
I think projects and short-term work can provide a focus that shifts practice, perhaps the way that people work together, or motivating a museum to build relationships in its local community – both of these are examples of changes that can have long-term impact. Project working is a feature of the way we work these days, so the challenge is for museums to use projects to stir up changes and then hang on to the benefits.
Fiona Talbott
MA Member
Head of Museums, Libraries
25.10.2012, 13:51
It still requires committment at the top of the organisation otherwise you can have a situation where staff work on projects which may have long term impact on relationships with the community but cannot fundamentally change the culture of the organisation.
17.10.2012, 21:36
This comment has been removed by the moderator because it did not adhere to our community rules.
Graham Oliver
Keeper, Biodiversity
17.10.2012, 14:38
While the 2020 discussion paper raises issues very pertinent to the development of museums it surprisingly omits comment on science and natural history. Museums hold millions of natural history specimens solely for the purpose of facilitating scientific research by staff or by external users.

A recent NERC review highlighted the role of museum collections in supporting taxonomic research and the concentration of taxonomic expertise in museums. Such collections and the expertise that supports them appears to be off the radar of the 2020 discussion.

Not only do these collections and experts support research, natural history collections can be and in our experience be valuable tools for supporting public understanding of contemporary environmental issues.

Given that natural history collections are key to taxonomic research and as Lord May said “Without taxonomy to give shape to the bricks, and systematics to tell us how to put them together, the house of biological science is a meaningless jumble” is this not a significant impact and one that natural history departments and museums be promoting well into the future
Sally Colvin
MA Member
Collections Coordinator, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 12:36
Just a thought to add that the MA absolutely does value the impact collections work and collections research can have, both academically and on public understanding. In the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund we give grants specifically for projects that improve and share understanding of collections, and of the 19 grants we’ve awarded so far, three have been to natural science projects spread across a large number of museums. For example earlier this year we awarded a grant to the Natural History Museum for a project bringing together information about seaweed collections in regional museums, with a specific focus on using that data to find and share indicators of climate change.
Sally MacDonald
MA Member
Director, UCL Museums and Collections
25.10.2012, 12:34
Hi Graham. I think you're right that we should put more emphasis on the role of museums in generating debates about science. I'd argue this applies to science generally, and not just natural history; you could make a similar case for medical collections. And you are right that many museums do support research activity. Having said that, I personally don't think there are many natural history museums that make the connection between their collections and current environmental issues explicit enough for their visitors, or that really think through what it would mean to do this well. What is the natural history equivalent of the Wellcome Collection? Anyway, I think you are right, Museums 2020 should address this area.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy
25.10.2012, 12:51
One of the noticable things in the recent Museums 2020 workshops has been the almost complete absence of examples of museums connecting to environmental issues. As we say in the Museums 2020 discussion paper, there's much potential for museums, particularly but not only, natural science museums, to use their collections to raise public awareness of how human behaviour is posing such a threat to the environment and to showcase alternative ways of living and acting - but there are very, very few examples of museums actively engaging with what is arguably the most important issue facing humanity.
Lucy Harland
MA Member
Director, Lucidity Media
25.10.2012, 14:02
Given that many museums still struggle with dealing with contemporary topics - even ones about which there is limited controversy - maybe encouraging participation in the environmental debate is something that needs support from the MA. But on the other hand, should museums be taking a specific stand on this issue? What about other, also pressing, social, political and cultural issues?
25.10.2012, 13:13
It's not just about the public facing side of things though. Researchers who are writing and publishing papers on climate change/environmental issues will be using these collections as reference. That's extremely important as well. The information then gets out into the wider world, and inevitably the public. I think museums *do* focus on these issues, it's just a mistake to think because people are working in the "back room" that their work lacks importance.
25.10.2012, 13:11
Two reasons immediately spring to mind which severely impact on the ability of museums to engage in these sorts of topics. One is the large number of museums which now have no curatorial staff associated with their natural history collections to be able to either develop exhibtions or use those collections to engage with their visitors. The other is the lack of advocacy for natural science in museums. Too many decision makers seem to have little or no awareness of, or interest in, natural science and natural science collections (that can be taken as science in general not just natural science).
24.10.2012, 12:36
I completely agree with you, Graham. I sometimes wonder if the reason the MA does not give as much thought towards natural sciences collections is simply because there is no one on staff who has the knowledge to talk about it. MA, might it not be a good idea to hire or consult someone who is knowledgeable about the natural sciences, so we can see more of it in the Museums Journal etc?
Sharon Heal
MA Member
Editor, Museums Association
25.10.2012, 13:20
Hi Gina, I'm more than happy to meet with any of you that are attending MA conference to discuss coverage of the boarder issues. In the short term I was hoping to commission a comment piece about the loss of curatorial expertise in this area - any offers?
Mike Howe
Chief Curator, British Geological Survey
25.10.2012, 14:00
I'm sure NatSCA and the GCG would be happy to provide input.
25.10.2012, 13:26
I'm afraid I'm not at the MA conference this year (sadly due to lack of funds!) But I would be more than happy to contribute to the comment piece. I also know some others that may be interested in offering their views. Do you need my email address?