Sinking without trace

Alistair Brown, 17.08.2016
What happened to the Welsh Museums Review?
I was in Wrexham last week to discuss the aims of the new Welsh Government Museums Strategy, which is due to be launched in spring 2017.

Wales, which launched the first national strategy for museums in the UK in 2010, has led the way in thinking about the strategic goals for the sector. But, as with all strategies, this new version can only succeed if matched by a real plan of action.

Wales already has a template for this plan of action. In fact, it has a rather long to-do list in the form of last year’s Welsh Government Expert Review of Local Museums.

This independent review criticised the sector and its funders, memorably coining the term "zombie museums" to describe the 10% of local authority museums which are operating with limited collections management and low visitor satisfaction.

The review highlighted the absence of Renaissance in the Regions investment in Wales and the limited training and development opportunities in the country.

The review made ten recommendations to get local museums back on their feet. Some of these could make a real difference to the sector, such as creating three regional museum bodies across local authority areas.

These bodies would be able to manage museums more effectively than individual local authorities; they would be better able to attract the partnership funding that has made museums such as Storiel and Wrexham into local success stories; and they could provide museums with freedom to experiment with different business models. They might also improve the seriously low visitor numbers and poor targeting of tourists by many museums.

However, in the year since publication, very little has happened. The (then) deputy minister for culture, Ken Skates, quietly accepted the outcome of the review some eight months after publication. But the funding required for implementing the recommendations – calculated at as little as £500,000 over five years – is nowhere to be seen.

As a result, the Welsh government’s attempts to transform the sector have stalled. And with further public sector cuts likely, continued inaction will mean museum closures and more services reduced to little more than the "zombie museums" identified in last year’s report.

That’s not good enough – and any new strategy document worth its salt should identify the delivery of the expert review's recommendations as a central plank of the Welsh government’s work in the years to come.

Comments

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David Anderson
Director General, National Museum Wales - Amgueddfa Cymru
23.08.2016, 10:02
Whilst supporting the aspiration we all share to implement the Expert Review to move the sector in Wales forward, I want to defend the proposal in the Review that there should be a Museums Council for Wales (whatever it is called).

This is certainly not envisaged as a rehash of CyMAL or MALD - both of which were/are part of government - or as an old style 1970s area museum council. The recommendation as I understood it is to create a national partnership to lead sectoral change - something that could be very new and positive.

If need be, let's change the name, not the recommendation.
Anonymous
17.08.2016, 14:52
This blog has sparked a great deal of discussion in the office this morning. Alistair Brown with this blog title suggests that welsh museums are the Titanic of the sector.......whilst acknowledging that times are hard, welsh museums are definitely not out!

Wales has always been financially deficient in comparison with the other UK regions and undoubtedly the Welsh Government needs to invest in the recommendations of the Expert Review. However, we also need to differentiate between those recommendations that are feasible and those that are antiquated in their own right. For instance a Welsh Museums Council is very much a tried and tested thing of the past which went on to be replaced by CyMAL and now MALD.

However, the Welsh sector has been incredibly vocal that these recommendations offer a lifeline. Since the publication of the review many of the museums listed have already converted to trust, closed or are facing significant funding challenges. Without financial investment from the Welsh Government this cannot be addressed. Until Local Authority Museum employees are able to vocalise the issues that they face freely and without censorship from their authority these will be difficult to address. An open dialogue is essential.

Limited training and development opportunities are very much ruled by geographical inconsistencies in funding opportunities. For instance the MA's transformers scheme does not allow for more than one candidate per year from Wales due the origin of funding being Arts Council England. Wales need a level playing field for our professionals and volunteers. This will help raise standards and would be key to revitalising those working in the sector.

As for the regional museum bodies most of us would concur that this was a sound idea however the number is irrelevant, instead it should be based on effective working across the regions, opening up opportunities to share skills and expertise across Wales.

The central plank in Welsh Governments work should be policies like the Future Generations Act, which is the first of its kind in the UK. Welsh Government needs to invest time and support in the museum sector which is of concern considering the Ministerial portfolio has expanded even further to economy and infrastructure at a time when issues like the steel industry form part of the context.
Rachel Silverson
President/Museum Curator, Firing Line
17.08.2016, 17:49
I would agree with the points made here. Museums in Wales have suffered due to the amount of time that has passed between the publication of the Expert Review on Museum Provision and implementation, and many organisations have been forced to change their model of delivery in the meantime. In some cases some of these museums have tragically not survived.

However, the Review's recommendations offer such opportunity for Wales, opening up potential for a real seed-change across Wales offering new and dynamic ways of working to revitalise the sector.

The Federation of Museums and Galleries of Wales carried out consultation with organisations in Wales to uncover opinion on these options and they were overwhelmingly viewed as positive and feasible, as long as the Welsh Government puts into place the financial measures to make this happen....and quite frankly that museums deserve.

The regional bodies offer the chance to use the Welsh workforce more effectively and to reintroduce specialism back into organisations. This in turn has a real impact on the professional development and skill-building of those working in museums, as well as those visiting them.

Museums offer so much more than access to collections and it is time for us to be proud of what we do and to shout much louder about the value of and contributions that museums make to Tourism, employment in Wales, the economy and in reference to the Future Generations Act passed by the Welsh Government, the role we play in helping people live healthy and happy lives, where a resilience and robustness becomes embedded into day to day life in Wales.

The strategy will need to verse itself in many languages to speak to those who influence, legislate and make decisions, to enable understanding of our work to funding bodies and as significantly to communicate with the public as to how we enhance, impact on and change lives.
Alistair Brown
Policy Officer, Museums Association
17.08.2016, 15:54
Hi Anonymous! I'm certainly not trying to suggest that Welsh museums are the Titanic of the sector - it's the disappearance of the Expert Review itself that I am concerned about, and to which I was referring in the headline.

Moreover, I agree wholeheartedly that some of the recommendations in the Review are more necessary than others. The idea of a Museums Council is reinventing the wheel and hardly an urgent priority.

On the other hand, changing the governance of local authority museums so that regional bodies can manage provision appropriately would, I think, be a worthwhile structural change, and would help to open up the kind of dialogue that you mention. I'd also like to see increased Welsh participation in schemes such as Transformers - but that does require strategic investment from the Welsh Govt and other sector bodies.

I was disappointed that the Expert Review didn't make any concrete recommendations about working across departments in the Welsh Government in order to improve tourist footfall or to deliver against wider social agendas - both of which would fit neatly into the Future Generations Act. So I'd like to see these ideas feature in a Museums Strategy as well.



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