Keep the best and dump the rest

Maurice Davies, 03.04.2012
ACE should dispose of some of its inheritance from MLA
Arts Council England (ACE) seems to be getting to grips with its support for museums.

But one of my disappointments is that it has felt that it has to stick relatively closely to the new Renaissance model inherited from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

There are many things that the MLA championed that ACE should retain. But some parts of the inheritance could happily be disposed of.

I’d like to see ACE directly funding a far wider range of activity than the MLA did.

That would include supporting a diversity of types of activity to engage with a diversity of people: touring exhibitions, off-site activity, virtual activity.

It would be fantastic if ACE felt able to be highly innovative by, for example, offering funds to independent organisations to use the collections of building-based museums.

ACE must focus its effort on the impacts of museums – it should come quite naturally to an arts funder to support programming to use and animate collections for impact, rather than managing and researching collections for their own sake.

To draw a parallel with theatre, a museum collection is perhaps analogous to the script of a play: to achieve excellence it needs to be brought to life so people can engage with it.

But there’s far more to impact than simply giving audiences a good time and many of the impacts that the MLA championed are well worth holding onto.

In its Culture, knowledge and understanding: great museums and libraries for everyone, ACE observes work “in relation to a broader range of public outcomes (health, education, return to work) is likely to take on a new importance” – but I’m not always convinced ACE really values those aspects of museum work.

I always worry about ACE’s preoccupation with artistic excellence and the importance of the artist. These concepts don’t translate well into museums as they increasingly successfully become audience- and impact-focused.

But I do think that ACE’s philosophy has the potential to support museums that want to develop the quality of engagement with, and impact on, diverse audiences, rather than simply grow their attendance numbers.

As part of this, ACE will need to properly respect participation and co-production and resist any temptation to see it as being in a lower status category of “community” or “amateur” work.

Participatory work often produces excellent results and communicates with a wide audience. The MLA did recognise this - and ACE should, too.

Looking back, the MLA was right on many of the principles, but sometimes made the implementation rather too complicated.

The mixture of museum development, subject specialist networks, accreditation advice, Collections Trust, support from hubs and all the rest often seemed to be less than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, ACE seems to be set on continuing most - even all - of this.

Sometime soon, ACE needs to fundamentally review the purpose and responsibilities of its funding for support for museums with the simple goal of producing a streamlined system, better able to support museums in improving their impact.

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Comments

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12.04.2012, 15:20
Maurice is spot on. Until ACE accepts that impact on the public has to be the lynchpin of its funding for museums, it will always be wide open to criticisms of being elitist. MLA's demise was largely unlamented precisely because it seemed to have no grasp of the concept of public impact.
10.04.2012, 09:43
In response to Margaret, I wasn't suggesting for a moment that ACE should stop funding (or for that matter continue to fund) anything in particular. Rather, that it would make good sense for ACE to take stock and look holistically at all the museum support organisations and systems it funds. It surely makes sense to check that the museum-support system is as good as it could be, helping museums increase their impact as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Margaret
MA Member
10.04.2012, 08:04
"Maurice Davies' exhortation to ACE to examine the bundle of its inheritance from the MLA is surely wise, but his lumping of many different things together in his penultimate paragraph contradicts his advice.

In pursuit of excellence and in recognition of certain fundamentals to ensure it (where heritage, as distinct from art, is concerned), ACE recognises the work of the Collections Trust - supporting individuals, professionals and institutions - and funds it very modestly. This should not be jettisoned. Integrating collections and making them available for use in a wide variety of ways outlined by Davies, must be built on the firm foundation of shared protocols and standards. The development and dissemination of this work, in a co-production with museum professionals, is the work of the Collections Trust. It includes the digital agenda which for which ACE is now developing its strategy and, regrettably, is better understood internationally than in the UK. Similarly, subject specialist networks are to be encouraged for the knowledge they make available to non-specialist curators; and without museum development many of the initiatives Maurice Davies would like to see will not be found in museums at a local level."
Margaret Greeves, Chair, Collections Trust
Esme
MA Member
08.04.2012, 20:31
As a previous Audience Development officer at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery I wholeheartedly agree with Maurice's thought provoking statement and the need for museums to focus on impact in particular. Now more than ever is the time to look outwards and engage meaningfully with all sectors of society, rather than inwards on traditional areas of curatorship, research and conservation, important those these are for most museums.