Museums hope for change from Accreditation review - Museums Association

Museums hope for change from Accreditation review

Many in the sector are supportive of Accreditation, but feel that the nationally agreed standard for UK museums could be improved, particularly for smaller organisations. Geraldine Kendall Adams reports on the issues that a review of the scheme should look at
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
The 30th anniversary of Accreditation – the nationally agreed standard for museums in the UK – is coming up in 2018, and what is described as a “light-touch” review of the scheme has been announced to ensure that it is fit for purpose in time for its landmark birthday.

The review will be carried out by the scheme’s four national partners: Arts Council England (ACE); Museums Galleries Scotland; the Museums, Archives and Libraries Division in Wales; and the Northern Ireland Museums Council. A scoping phase is underway to determine what elements of the scheme are most in need of attention, and the refreshed standard will be launched next spring.

When plans for the review were announced earlier this year, Scott Furlong, the director of collections and cultural property, at ACE, said: “While the scheme remains vital and valued, there are certain aspects that would benefit from review. This will ensure that Accreditation continues to contribute effectively to the health and development of museums.”

Speaking to those familiar with the scheme, it is clear that, although Accreditation is highly valued and respected, there are some areas of the process that need to be reconsidered.

The scheme was last reviewed in 2009-10, with a revised standard published in 2011 that put a greater focus on the needs of visitors and being more responsive to communities. But the sector has changed markedly in the past six years. In 2011, the now-abolished Museums, Libraries and Archives Council ran Accreditation in England, and the full scale and impact of funding cuts had yet to play out.

At a session during Museums Association’s 2010 conference in Manchester, a number of delegates expressed concern that the new-look scheme would prove too burdensome, and that cuts would leave museums with little support during the application process. In some cases, particularly among smaller museums, those fears have turned out to be well founded.

Back to basics

“I’d really encourage the arts council to start afresh and go back to basics,” says Emmie Kell, the chief executive of the Cornwall Museums Partnership (CMP), which supports museums in Cornwall. “The whole thing needs looking at again. It is designed for organisations that are much larger and have paid staff and resources.”

Small museums

This is a particular problem in largely rural areas such as south-west England, she says, where the vast majority of museums are small, volunteer-led institutions. The CMP says museums are often contacted at short notice and asked to file paperwork within a narrow timescale – a system that isn’t always achievable for museums staffed by volunteers, or those that only open part-time or seasonally.

“It’s alienating people who are very passionate about what they’re doing,” says Kell. “That’s not in anyone’s interest. How can we build a sense of enjoyment into the scheme?”

The CMP’s Bryony Robins, who is the museum development officer (MDO) for south-west England, agrees, saying some smaller museums find the process complex and onerous.

“It would be very helpful if there was just a little more flexibility with dates,” Robins says.

In addition – although the 2011 standard did introduce a greater degree of scaleability – Robins believes that certain requirements of the scheme, such as environmental policies and security reviews, still need to be made more flexible for different types of institutions.

Another concern with the current scheme – and one that institutions in all four nations have raised – is the imbalance between the supply and demand of museum mentors. Any museum that does not employ a museum professional is required to engage a mentor (a senior professional with at least five years’ experience working in museums) to guide them through the Accreditation process. In some areas, however, mentors are proving difficult to find – and looking further afield can mean engaging with someone who may not have a good understanding of local issues.

“We simply don’t have enough mentors to meet the needs of museums in the region, and the mentors themselves are getting more requests than they can deal with,” says Kell.

She also questions the “management and quality control” of mentors, saying that while most mentoring relationships are positive, there is little guidance available on what should happen if problems arise or if one of the parties fails to meet their commitments.

These concerns are echoed by others in the sector. One MDO, who wants to remain anonymous, says that changes in staffing and a shrinking workforce have had a negative impact on the pool of available mentors.

“There needs to be more flexibility around who would be eligible as a mentor,” she says, citing a case where a prospective mentor with significant experience in the education sector was rejected for lacking the appropriate museum background. “The scheme needs to take other forms of experience into account.”

Backlog of work

One concern specific to England is the backlog that developed when the MLA transferred responsibility for the scheme to ACE, which has since been exacerbated by cuts to the arts council’s own resources. Those contacted by Museums Journal were keen to emphasise that the problem was not with the Accreditation assessors themselves, who they described as helpful and flexible, but that there was “too much work for too few people”.

“The backlog was never caught up on and has snowballed since then, especially over the last 12 months,” says the MDO.

This means some museums have been known to wait for up to a year to hear whether they are even eligible to apply, she says – a long limbo period that can diminish people’s enthusiasm for the process and, on a practical level, leave them unable to apply for certain funding streams until their eligibility is confirmed.

In the case of Accredited or provisionally Accredited museums, the delay can mean being asked to redo policies that may have lapsed between the time a return was submitted and the time it was assessed.

During the review period, the Accreditation partners in each nation are prioritising new applications and provisional reviews, meaning that Accredited museums that were due to submit a return this year have been given a year’s grace – a pause that may help to address some of the backlog.

Further concerns have been raised around the language and tone of the scheme, which several people said can be overly bureaucratic and formal. “A lot of museums struggle with the language and don’t understand why they are being asked certain things,” says the MDO.

Participation levels

Some evidence suggests these issues may be putting some museums off applying for Accreditation in the first place, or creating a lack of incentive for previously Accredited museums to remain in the scheme. The total number of museums participating in Accreditation across the UK fell from 1,795 in November 2010 to 1,721 in November 2016 (see p12), a drop of 4%.

A fair proportion of the museums that have dropped out is likely to be the result of closures or mergers, but it is worth examining how many others simply decided that they weren’t getting what they wanted from the scheme.

The review team has been urged to speak not just to current participants in the scheme, but also to those that have chosen to drop out, as well as to museums that have never applied for Accreditation before.

The arts council’s senior manager for quality and standards, Isabel Wilson, is overseeing the review across the UK with the help of an external advisory group. She stresses that the sector’s concerns are being listened to and the review team is “aware of some elements of the scheme that need focus”.

Priorities for the review include examining whether the scheme is focused on the areas it can have the most impact, whether the requirements are the right ones and not unnecessarily burdensome, and if the timescale and management
of the scheme is realistic and achievable.

The review will also reassess the scaleability of the scheme, says Wilson, although she is clear that Accreditation will remain “one standard” for all museums.

Celebrating museums

“We will be looking at how other schemes work internationally,” she adds. “Are we checking in too often – or not enough, in the case of museums that require more structured support?”

The “tone and feel” of the scheme will change as well, says Wilson. “We’d like to rehumanise it and do more to celebrate museums.

We want to focus on the USP of the scheme – what it does that no one else does.”

The review team is also keen to ensure that the refreshed scheme is a more rewarding experience to undertake, and that museums feel like they’ve benefitted from the process.

“We want to reconnect the message more around the benefits, rather than making people feel it’s something they have to do,” says Wilson.

In spite of the issues raised, there is consensus among museum professionals about the importance of Accreditation to the sector. There has been significant progress made in the quality, professionalism and public benefit that museums offer since the scheme was introduced in 1988.

As Robins from the CMP says: “Accreditation in itself is a great thing, it makes museums feel more confident and professional – it’s just the process of getting there that’s difficult.”

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