‘Better collaboration will 
lift SSNs’ digital expertise’

Closer ties are key to engaging new members and improving digital performance
Caroline Parry
The need for better collaboration between specialist subject networks (SSN) to develop and build up digital expertise, share skills and knowledge, and appeal to a diverse range of members, was highlighted at a recent meeting looking at ways to support their work.
Convened by Arts Council England (ACE) but led by independent facilitator Jo Boardman, the 30 March session was attended by 22 SSNs, and aimed to look at ways to share best practice, identify challenges and find opportunities to collaborate.
Boardman will compile a report for ACE to inform its strategy on SSNs, and to identify ways to support their work. The networks have received funding from ACE and, before that, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, for the past decade.

Caroline Pegum, who attended the meeting as researcher/coordinator of 
the Understanding British Portraits network, describes the meeting as “fruitful”.

“Practical and immediate problems were addressed, 
as well as more strategic agreements to share digital expertise and programme/activity templates, and provide mutual advocacy,” she says.

Catherine Harvey, the south-east England representative for the Islamic Art and Material Culture SSN, says the meeting covered a lot of old ground, and that it was “good to get together and hear what the other SSNs are doing”.

“We are all very different groups, with some established and some new,” she adds. “We have all grown out of different landscapes and each group has a different feel to it. One positive that came out of  it was the need for closer working between different networks and partnerships between similar groups.”

Common concern

The SSNs identified three broad areas of common concern – digital development, collaboration, and engaging with new members – and some ways 
to tackle the issues.

Digital development, such as greater visibility on the ACE website and on free social media platforms, is an area in which it was felt SSNs could share knowledge and skills to “build confidence”.

Collaboration is seen as key to improving cross-discipline knowledge, through study days or joint events, while engaging more professionals early in their careers is crucial to increasing specialist knowledge, and growing and diversifying membership.

“We acknowledged that SSNs are enhanced by offering a programme that is relevant to and welcoming of a range of professionals,” 
says Pegum.

ACE says it recognises 
the unique role of SSNs in enabling the sector to develop and share expertise associated with specialist collections. However, it acknowledges that many networks are “understandably concerned” about funding and the need 
to find ways in which to diversify their income.

Understanding British Portraits has received ACE funding, which Pegum says has helped to significantly develop its range and scale of activities. The network offers a fellowship programme, conferences and a website.
ACE is providing funding to 14 SSNs between 2015 
and 2018, but there has been criticism that the first funding call in many years was not pitched at the right level.

Alice Stevenson, the chair of the Association of Curators of Collections from Egypt and Sudan, says the minimum amount SSNs could apply for was £30,000, which was not appropriate for all groups.
“We desperately just needed a bit of financial support to 
run workshops and provide bursaries for travel,” she says.

While Stevenson says 
she believes ACE now understands this issue, the outcome of the report, and what it means for funding, has yet to be revealed.

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