Workshops responses

Responses to Museums 2020 from the first workshops
Museums 2020 is the Museums Association's initiative to develop a vision of museums and their impact. In autumn 2012 we published a discussion paper and held workshops to explore these ideas.

At the beginning of October 2012, just over half-way through the Museums 2020 discussion workshops, a few themes are emerging.

Impact

Many people have found it helpful to think about the impact of museums.

For one participant the key thing they got from the workshop was "the new language being used - wellbeing, participation, social justice etc and what those things imply in terms of cultural change".

For some it was a revelation "we need to engage with our users at a whole new level and empower them".

Another participant came to realise that the key question for a museum is "not just what we want to be, but why we're here".

Distinctive role of museums

There is a concern that many of the impacts identified in Museums 2020 may be too generic and could be claimed by many other organisations such as universities or dance companies.

What do museums bring to the table? Is it possible to better articulate the distinctive benefits that museums in particular can bring?

Participation and Partnership

People were largely comfortable with increasing participation in museums' work and decision-making "opening up, inviting in, will enrich what expert professionals can offer" and recognised the benefits of good partnerships that "can improve our impact and open us up to creating new impacts in the community".

Collections

There is a great divergence of view about whether achieving beneficial impacts is at the core of museum work:

• Some agree with this central Museums 2020 premise

• Some feel that making a difference to individuals and communities is valuable but want to better understand "how collections can be involved". Some thought achieving impact needs to be reconciled with "our existing museum business" or spoke of the need to "expand and remain relevant without losing what makes museums museums" and the need to balance adapting to new opportunities while keeping to core purpose.

• Some, particularly at the London workshop, were "concerned by the lack of thought and mention given to the importance of collections' argued for the 'intrinsic value' of museums and were unhappy that "the MA has very specific views... there is not much room for dissenting opinion".

Some of these latter comments were quite forcibly expressed and led other participants to express "concerns at the excessive defensiveness of some of the younger museum staff and continuing polarised debate over audiences vs collections… where are the brand new radicals?" and observe "museums are ambivalent about change and the future".

Gaps

Some participants suggested that Museums 2020 could pay more attention to the economic and tourism impact of museums and the growing impact of digital work.

Many would like Museums 2020 to do more to explore the role and use of collections.

One size fits all

Most museums are not large enough to try to achieve a wide range of impacts well and will need to focus on particular areas.

Is it acceptable for each museum to find its niche, or are there things that every museum should try to achieve for its audiences and communities? Should larger museums try to achieve a wide range of impacts?

Is it acceptable for a smaller or specialist museum to have an overall goal of inclusion and access but in practice to target easier-to-reach audiences?

Measuring success

For most museums, attendance numbers are likely to continue to be the key performance measure.

Funders, governing bodies and policy-makers see it as important, it's relatively easy to measure and some museum’s business plans are predicated on high numbers of visitors.

But people would like additional ways of describing success that give a better idea of the range, quality and impact of their work: a better suite of impact measures is needed.

Risk

People think museums may be becoming (even more) risk averse – but to increase impact creative approaches are needed, which means taking more risks.

Thinking long-term

Some participants worried that looking too far a head might be a luxury in such troubled times, but many found it valuable to "think beyond the practical and pragmatic, lift eyes and spirits above the present crisis to look to the future and try to see one".

This draws on discussion at Museums 2020 workshops in Liverpool, London, Birmingham and Leeds in September and October 2012.

Comments

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Mary (Marette) Hickford
MA Member
Volunteer, IWM Friends, Imperial War Museum
04.01.2013, 10:20
It would be useful to have a focus upon the definition of what is a volunteer? are volunteers part of 'staff'? I volunteer for a large national museumswhich has been investing in recruiting volunteers for quite important positions but are not encouraged to contribute towards making suggestions for future museum exhibitions and activities. When I asked if volunteers could be involved in their staff consultation exercise, I was told that a questionnaire would be sent to volunteers for their input.The Museums 2020 strategy should definitely encourage all museums to seriously consider their approach to volunteers recruitment and management. A volunteer tends to be very interested in the work of the museum they have committed hours to but I definitely do not want to be treated as a plaster to resolve financial problems a museum may have, particularly in terms of staff recruitment.