Maurice Davies is head of policy and communications at the Museums Association

Impact or collections?

Maurice Davies, 18.09.2012
Some early lessons from Museums 2020 workshops
My Museums 2020 workshops for Museums Association members are getting into their stride. So far I’ve facilitated two, one in Birmingham and the other in Liverpool. And there are more to come - in London, Leeds, Cardiff and Exeter.

Although enjoyable, these workshops set quite a tough task. Firstly, we identify all the different impacts that museums have – the difference they make to individuals, communities, society and the planet. That’s straightforward enough and many attendees report they found it interesting and useful.

What’s proving tougher is the workshops’ challenge to pick an impact and think about how your museum would need to change in order to achieve that big time.

So, for example, at the workshop in Liverpool, people discussed challenges such as how a museum could really make people behave in a more environmentally-friendly way, how it could play a significant part in reducing the likelihood of riots, and how – in a broad sense – it could help its community to thrive.

Key themes that emerged were that to have a significant impact in such areas – to be more than dabblers – museums need new skills and knowledge. They need to partner and collaborate more and they need to share control with others. There needs to be a clear organisational long-term commitment with all staff and board members engaged. And the museum’s resources of collections, buildings, knowledge and relationships need to be used in new imaginative ways.

One challenge has been seeing how this more outward-looking work can relate to collections. It’s evidently the case that an increasing amount of museum activity doesn’t rely on collections.

But that has meant that some people in museums don’t see it as central. At the Birmingham workshop there was a sense that museums will continue to do community- and people-focused work, but it might be slightly peripheral to perhaps more central work involving collections.

In Liverpool the mood was different; people found it easier to see bringing community benefit as a more integral part of a museum’s work. People could see the possibility of museums changing significantly in order to deliver increased benefits.

A key aim of Museums 2020 is to help people think beyond day-to-day, month-to-month museum processes to focus on long-term purpose. At both workshops there was a clear sense that museums will survive – and thrive – if communities see then as having a valuable role.

I hope Museums 2020, and Museums 2020 workshops in particular, are helping people think about what their museum’s role might usefully be.

Come to a workshop, read the discussion paper and send me your thoughts, read what others are saying and contribute to the debate online or via Twitter using #Museums2020


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Philip Hadland
MA Member
Assistant Collections Manager, Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries Serv
30.10.2012, 16:05
One of the main ways in which I see museums increasing their impact in 2020 is by realising the potential of their reserve collections.Little gems are hidden away for decades (OR EVEN CENTURIES!) in stores before their importance becomes apparent. Who hasn't heard of that new dinosaur species discovered in a museum store.I am looking forward to seeing what impact the fruits of our Collections Review will have.
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
14.10.2012, 23:02
Museums have a tremendous amount to bring to the party, but all too often instead of going as ourselves, we have tried to dress up as someone else. The consequence has been many rather expensive 'special' projects that have left little lasting legacy in the community, but which looked 'brilliant' at the time.

Going by the other comments, it is apparent that most museum professionals believe objects are central to our role in our communities. the real challenge is being far more open and accomodating to new ways of using our collections, which as far as I can tell stacks of museums are already doing up and down the country.

There's only one thing i am sure of: it will be ordinary museum professionals in ordinary museums who will be leading the way. it always has been the case!!
Damian Gaster
MA Member
27.09.2012, 10:06
If the tail wags the dog the institution loses respect; if the collections are exploited for the theme of the moment, they lose their coherence and the staff become disillusioned as resources are wasted. This said, special exhibitions, drawing on existing collections, might be good for staff development and attract new visitors.
24.09.2012, 16:31
These sessions are generating some really interesting discussions and I'm looking forward to attending the Cardiff event.

Interesting to see the mention of 'clear organisational long-term commitment'. One of the biggest current challenges is the speed and scale of change happening to us as a sector. As well as the changes to funding and income targets, the role of museums is as much of a hot potato as ever.

The challenge is not stopping change but influencing and shaping our future as a sector, and raising our voices so that others listen!
Jo McGuire
Service Development Manager, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council
18.09.2012, 23:39
I agree with the comment about the two not being mutually exclusive however I think that a lot of the discussion is missing a trick. One of the USPs of museums (and galleries) are the collections we hold. Lots of other organisations can and do have the impacts discussed through dance, music, writing, sport, theatre - you get my drift. Community arts have been doing this kind of work for years. Sports development too. Museums and galleries hold many and diverse collections and access to these in creative and innovative ways - taking them as the starting point, the stimuli, the key that unlocks the door - is what makes museums and galleries different to other community arts or reminiscence work. Our collections and our buildings are an integral and vital part of our ability to deliver the range of impacts we have discussed. I understand why you didn't want to 'limit' the discussion Maurice but we're in danger of trying to be something we are not by not rooting our engagement work in our collections and thereby losing sight of what makes us special and different.
24.09.2012, 16:27
Really well put, Jo. Collections are central to musuems and we shouldn't be ashamed or apologetic about the objects we hold. Yes, there are more innovative ways of sharing, displaying and interpreting collections - all of which increase impact.

While museums can and should engage with social, economic, environmental and health issues, we should do this through the prism of our collections.
Ruth Kerr
MA Member
Community Engagement & Learning Officer, Hampshire Arts & Museums Service
11.10.2012, 17:55
Very much agree with Jo and Sophie. We're about collections - we should be looking after them and shouting about them and shouting with them. Everything we do should involve or flow to and from our collections. If it doesn't, if we increasingly don't have that connection between what we do and our collections, then we're saying we don't need them. And that would be very, very wrong.
MA Member
18.09.2012, 15:10
The title of this struck me right away- why is it "impact OR collections?" The two are not mutually exclusive. Neither are community and collections.

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that I find it increasingly frustrating that whenever collections are mentioned they are pitted against another issue as if the two things are in competition.

They don't necessarily have to be.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
18.09.2012, 16:55
Ah, yes, thanks for that point; I probably should've titled it 'Impact and Collections?'