Working internationally

Maurice Davies, 06.03.2013
Museums of all sizes have international stories to tell
This week the International Council Of Museums' sold-out conference Working Internationally shows how museums are looking out beyond the shores of the British Isles.

The big nationals are, of course, doing extensive international work. The V&A tours exhibitions to India, China, Japan and the USA, amongst others.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is working with countries including Australia and Pakistan on the centenary of the First World War – the IWM has a head start because high commissioners of seven countries serve as trustees. National Museums Scotland has a particularly strong relationship with Malawi.

All that you would expect.

Perhaps less familiar is international work by smaller museums. Examples include Luton’s fantastic project to bring together Pakistani traditions of decorated trucks with British traditions of Vardo (Gypsy) caravan painting, and the Museum of East Anglian Life’s “creative inquiry” with Meru Museum in Kenya that explored things such as how museums can contribute to community development, for example through horticulture.

Perhaps most ambitious of all is the touring exhibition Toward Modernity: Three Centuries of British Art that includes paintings, prints, drawings and watercolours from collections in Manchester and throughout the north west and is currently touring museums in China. The exhibition was put together by Bury Art Museum as an income-generating exercise, in response to anticipated cuts.

The motivations for international working are mixed. Beth McKillop, V&A deputy director, asked succinctly whether it was “business or showcase”. That is, do museums work internationally to try to make money or to engage more people with what they do? Does it serve the museum’s bottom line or the overarching purpose?

The conference’s overall conclusion seemed to be that while you can sometimes make money from international work, usually it’s mainly driven by mission.

Opening the conference, British Museum director Neil MacGregor slightly startled me by questioning the idea of cultural diplomacy, which I had assumed was a key reason national museums worked internationally.

MacGregor worried that the word “diplomacy” suggests museums might be supporting government purposes, rather than for cleaner community-building reasons.

Another question rumbling through the conference was the extent to which relationships are genuinely equal and reciprocal.

I had an uneasy feeling that too often UK museums risk behaving as either the expert advisor, or take a dominant cultural lead. Of course there are exceptions, particularly the social enterprise Heritage without Borders.

But it is clear that international partnerships can help you achieve things for audiences far beyond what’s possible by only sticking close to home (as an extreme example, Bury Museum started working internationally in earnest when UK museums refused to deal with them after they lost accreditation because Bury Council sold a Lowry from the museum’s collection).

If you are interested in developing international partnerships for your museum, a good place to start would be to talk to the British Council, where Jane Weeks is the museums and heritage advisor.

One speaker said that “all museums have fantastic international stories to tell” and this was the overriding message of the conference: all museums, regardless of size, can think about working internationally.


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12.03.2013, 01:46
I do hope the MA's interest in international partnerships might at some point be reflected in the Museums Journal, where the focus on domestic issues is currently leavened only by the rather perfunctory "World news digest" each month. The challenges facing museum professionals in many countries around the world can appear overwhelming; the level of informed debate outside of last week's conference seems quite the opposite. Or perhaps I am looking in the wrong place?

Keith Nichol
Jane Weeks
MA Member
Museums and Heritage Adviser, British Council
07.03.2013, 11:17
Maurice, many thanks. My role at the British Council is to advise and support museums wishing to work internationally, and my email address is