Decision time

Laura Pye, 22.11.2017
The Mendoza Review is positive but we should not be complacent
Last week I joined a panel discussion at the Museums Association conference about the Mendoza Review. On the whole I think the review is positive and it’s great that it paints a positive image of the sector, but I worry that it could lead to us becoming complacent.

While there is absolutely evidence of museums thriving, I do believe there is a crisis in the sector. Crisis is a big word, but the dictionary definition of crisis is this -

"A time when a difficult or important decision must be made."

There are four main areas for me where I believe we are "at a time when important decisions need to be made" and they all interlink.

First, funding. I think the review underplays the impact not just of where the reduction in local authority funding is now but where it might be in five years’ time

The review concludes that over the past 10 years funding for museums has been “nominally maintained”, although it does accept this is actually a 13% reduction in real terms.

The suggestion funding has been “nominally maintained” relies on the fact that while local authority funding has gone down, other funding such as from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has gone up, but it is not like for like: HLF funding doesn’t help museums cover their gas bills or fund their front of house to open its doors.

HLF funding should be about additionality, although I welcome the recommendation in the review that suggests the HLF funding should look at back of house projects as well. But we shouldn’t mask a significant reduction in funding by suggesting different funding sources are covering this gap.

In many cases the gap in funding isn’t leading to closure, instead it is leading to either a reduction in opening hours or and more critically the “hollowing out” of industry expertise. We are seeing a reduction in the amount of curatorial posts now available in our regional museums and this loss of expertise makes our ability as a sector to deal with what I believe is our next “crisis” point ever more difficult.

Collections management, my second area, is a major issue for the sector. We all fill in our accreditation returns and state we have a 10 year documentation backlog, a 10 year backlog that we have had for at least the last 30 years and that we will still have in the next 30 years.

I believe we need to start again with our collection management standards. We can’t as a sector keep lying to ourselves that one day everything we own will be beautifully documented, digitised and in the right place on the shelf, so we need to find a way of managing the collection we have more effectively and ensuring we are giving as much access to what we have as possible.

Most of us have storage issues, but are in a vicious circle that collections cost a lot to store, we would like to rationalise the collection but need time and expertise to do it and our budget only covers the status quo. As a sector we need to be more radical and in some cases just more realistic. Curators shouldn’t be scared to dispose, it has to be part of what we do.

Third, from our boards to our volunteers, we are simply not representative of the communities we belong to, and that isn't good enough. As a sector have to do better here and I don’t think there are any concrete recommendation in the review as to how we are going to do this.

And finally, although the review highlights the role of museums in terms of placemaking and cultural identity and the role we play in meeting social objectives and supporting partners such as public health and the NHS, we are still not articulating our relevance clearly enough.

For museums to be an integral part of civic and cultural life we have to have a workforce that is representative of the communities we work within, who have the expertise and understanding of what we need to collect and display to be relevant today. This is the way to ensure in the future we are giving a view of the society we live in now. We need space and good collections management to hold these ever-growing collections, and we need money or other wherewithal to support that.

The review highlights the amazing work my colleagues in independent and local and ex-local authority museums are doing to increase income and be more sustainable, but there is only so far we can go.

To say, “broadly speaking museums do need to increase and diversify their income further” may well be true but is it achievable and is it achievable in a time frame that can make a difference?

I sit in regular meetings with my senior management team within the council when they say: “Your commercialisation agenda is going well, Laura, how much more can you save next year?”

And I have to remind them that, yes, my team has done an amazing job but in many cases we have taken income streams from a performance level of “crap” to one of “average”, and at the end of the day I run a few museum shops: it’s not Harrods and is never going to make us millions.

It’s great that the report is so positive, but the danger is that local authorities read it and believe that everything is great, and it simply isn’t. The sector is working hard to stay away from that cliff edge, but if we don’t address the four areas I outlined here, and address them quickly, we won’t have the thriving and successful sector the Mendoza Review outlines.

Laura Pye is head of culture at Bristol City Culture. This is an edited version of her blog.