Raising Designation's profile is top priority - Museums Association

Raising Designation’s profile is top priority

The Designation scheme is highly regarded, but a review has found that a few tweaks are needed before its relaunch. By Geraldine Kendall
The Designation scheme for non-national museums, libraries and archives in England is being relaunched this spring following an extensive review.

Introduced in 1997 as a mark of recognition for preeminent museum collections of national and international importance, the scheme’s remit was expanded to include libraries and archives in 2005, and 140 collections now hold Designated status.

The scheme has changed little since then, despite the major changes in governance structure and funding that have taken place across the sector.

For that reason, Arts Council England (ACE), which took over responsibility for the scheme three years ago, decided on the review as part of its ongoing efforts to incorporate museum objectives into its overall strategy for the arts.

Designation continues to be well regarded by stakeholders. According to an independent survey commissioned as part of the review, 75% of respondents viewed the scheme favourably, and most said its original principles continue to hold true: encouraging the safeguarding of a collection, raising its profile and, where possible, directing funding in support of it.

If it ain’t broke

During the consultation, many respondents urged the arts council not to tamper too much with something that “isn’t broken”.

But the review uncovered several issues with the current approach that need to be addressed, according to ACE’s Designation manager Paula Brikci, although she emphasises that all of the award decisions granted so far have been “absolutely right”.

The first thing that should change, says Brikci, is the misconception that the award is a “quasi-standard” along the same lines as the Accreditation standard – a tool for organisational development rather than a mark of distinction for specific collections.

This perception arose from the broadening of the scheme’s remit, when ACE began assessing each applicant’s collections management and public performance to account for the fact that libraries and archives did not have a standard similar to museum Accreditation at the time.

The arts council is now proposing to drop that assessment, while refocusing the scheme back to its founding principles of “quality and significance” and clarifying more clearly what is meant by these terms. This would align it more closely with the arts council’s wider strategic objective of excellence for the arts.

Sense of direction

That does not mean, however, that the scheme is no longer concerned about the development of an institution that holds a Designated collection.

Instead, ACE is compiling a set of characteristics to which every award-holder should aspire, requiring organisations to show ambition and a strong sense of direction in bringing out the richness of their Designated collections. But this will form part of an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-off assessment.

A key question raised during the consultation was whether the arts council should review Designated status if an organisation’s circumstances change or the collection comes under threat.

This is a particularly pertinent issue given the financial climate in the museum sector; in recent years, Designated institutions such as Wedgwood and the Women’s Library have run into difficulty.

ACE currently has no mandate to review the status once it has been awarded. One respondent to the survey said the scheme should “have teeth” when it came to protecting collections in peril, and that the arts council should have more powers to take action if necessary, rather than “bleating silently” from the sidelines.

Reviewing the situation

In response to this issue, the arts council has said that although Designation will continue to be an enduring award and will not be reviewed as a matter of course, changes of governance or questions about collections development may now result in a review.

In the longer term, the arts council plans to review awards that were granted to “all holdings”, rather than certain parts of a collection, to clarify the extent of their eligibility for Designation.

The arts council is also keen to encourage Designation-holders to build on their key role as research collections. This will include advocacy and broader funding opportunities through the Designation Development Fund to help institutions strengthen relationships with universities and Subject Specialist Networks, as well as facilitating partnerships and training opportunities with academics.

As any museum that has undergone the stringent assessment process knows, applying for Designated status is a major undertaking that requires a lot of staff time and resources.

So is it worth the effort? The survey found that Designation is highly valued in terms of professional pride and the recognition it commands among peers, as well as giving increased access to curatorial support, investment and training opportunities.

But it could have an even greater impact; just 2% of survey respondents agreed that it was widely understood by the public, and “raising the profile of the scheme” was voted the top priority, even ahead of increasing funding.

ACE now plans to make advocacy a key priority for the scheme and to encourage award-holders to be more proactive in making sure it has a higher profile among funders, stakeholders and the public at large.

Andrew Lovett, director, Black Country Living Museum, (awarded Designation in 2012)

"We prioritised attaining Designation as part of the museum’s new strategic plan. We saw it as that important. I thought it was a critical step to help reposition, if not restore, the museum’s reputation as an institution with a serious underlying value and purpose.

It was a mammoth undertaking, taking several months to finalise. As much as anything else, we saw it as a way of giving confidence to funders and visitors that we had stuff worth looking at.

I do understand and agree with ACE’s move to focus on quality and significance. All I can say is that playing by the old rules made us address things that might otherwise have continued to languish for another 10 years.

But isn’t there a role for ACE to identify collections that warrant Designation, rather than relying on museum directors such as me?"

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