Future proofing

John Orna-Ornstein, 22.10.2014
Why ACE is funding resilience
You’ve probably realised by now that the arts council’s focus for museums between now and 2018 is building resilience.

Our main open fund is called the Museum Resilience Fund and it does what is says on the tin: the guidance states that “it will not normally fund activity that cannot be demonstrably linked to increased resilience for individual museums or the wider sector”.

And resilience – of individual organisations and the wider sector – is emphasised in Major Partner Museum and museum development guidance.

I’m convinced this is the right focus for the sector’s development body, at a time when local authority funding and grant-in-aid are declining and with a smaller proportion of lottery funding going to museums.

I recently spent a week working in four different museums local to my home and much that I saw spoke of resilience.

St Albans Museums has a context of local authority cuts heavily front-loaded to 2012.

But the energetic team has responded with plans for a new town-centre museum and a unique commercial partnership with the British Museum.

The Chiltern Open Air Museum has four full-time equivalent staff and 200 volunteers. There’s virtually no local authority support but the wonderful young team attract funding from numerous commercial and private sources and seem able to respond to change at a moment’s notice.

Stevenage Museum is a small town-centre museum, nestled in the basement of a church.

Times are not easy and the museum manager has to turn her hand to every imaginable job. But I attended the opening of a lovely exhibition developed with a local residential care home and saw lots of evidence that the museum is thriving and valued by its local community.

And a team meeting chaired by Maggie Appleton of Museums Luton showed an arts and cultural team that were united in their ambition for local people and entrepreneurial in their approach to making money to fund their ambitions.

So, what do we mean by resilience, and to what end?

Not just earning enough money to keep the doors open, that’s for sure. All of those museums were flourishing in their own ways, and I’d pick out three primary characteristics of these and many other museums I’ve visited over the past year.

First is clarity of purpose; a real confidence about what a museum is trying to achieve (and this, of course, varies enormously from one to another – we must not try to develop identikit museums).

Second is adaptability, a mindset across the whole workforce that allows the organisation to change and experiment and fail and try again and succeed as a continual process.

And the third is investment in people. Support and encouragement and development of our own teams so that they can deliver the museum’s purpose with flair.

These are tough times, but what I see again and again is that the people who work in museums are extraordinary and have a resilience that is going to ensure our sector continues to prosper.

The arts council doesn’t need to tell these people or their museums what to do. Our role is to support them in their own goals, in achieving great museums for all.

The first round of the Museum Resilience Fund is open for applications until 6 November.

John Orna-Ornstein is director of museums at Arts Council England.

The MA and ACE are working together to provide subsidised delegate places at a developmental seminar
on 25 November, Museums united: how to be resilient and have impact.


Museum Resilience Fund

Museums united: how to be resilient and have impact