Nationals urged to share

Long-term funding cuts leading to staff reductions and a loss of expertise at smaller museums are undermining collaborations with the nationals. Caroline Parry reports
Caroline Parry
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The declining level of expertise at some regional and smaller museums to support borrowing and loans from national museums is a key obstacle to increasing collaborations, according to Ian Blatchford, the director and chief executive of the Science Museum Group (SMG).

Blatchford, who is also the chairman of the National Museum Directors’ Council, called on national museums to share their star objects across the UK, so that they can be seen more widely outside London. This is linked to the Mendoza Review of museums in England, published last November, which recommended that national museums should fulfil their national status.

The Science Museum recently announced plans to share two iconic objects, Stephenson’s Rocket and Tim Peake’s Soyuz spacecraft, with venues around the UK for much of the next decade.

Stephenson’s Rocket is returning to Newcastle, where it was manufactured in 1828, for this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North. It will also spend time at two SMG venues – the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York.

Tim Peake’s spacecraft will be at NRM until 8 March, before touring to venues in eight cities, including Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh.

Resources undermined

Blatchford says strong levels of mutual trust and shared expertise are essential for developing long-term partnerships between venues, but this is being undermined as long-term funding cuts lead to staff reductions across the sector.

“Many potential venues have declining or zero  expertise to support borrowing,” he says. “The problem is true for a rising number of museums – be they major regional players and/or independents.”

Blatchford is clear that the Science Museum’s loans programme is possible only because additional funding has been sourced to cover costs.

“We were able to make our tour of Tim Peake’s Soyuz happen only because we developed a major partnership with Samsung. The Discovery Museum is able to borrow Stephenson’s Rocket only because it got Great Exhibition of the North funding, and the SMG was able to offer a hidden subsidy of conservation and logistics expertise and time,” he adds.

“For all national museums, the desire to work with others is stronger than ever, but the pressure on their budgets is going to be a massive impediment soon.”

Jilly Burns, the head of national and international partnerships at National Museums Scotland (NMS), which launched a four-year national strategy in 2016, says limited resources at both the loaning and receiving venues, inadequate infrastructure at the latter and a lack of knowledge and understanding about how to deal with loans have become critical factors.

NMS is working to counter the issue by building capacity across the sector, offering advice and training on how to borrow from its collections. In 2015-16, it worked with 135 Scottish museums on loans, training, touring and community engagement projects, talks and expertise advice. According to Burns, it aims to build knowledge and skills, but also to increase confidence.

The organisation seeks to spread costs by touring exhibitions, usually to three venues. This is a model also adopted by the Arts Council Collection, which is working with three national partners (Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne; Birmingham Museums Trust; and the Walker Art Gallery, part of National Museums Liverpool) over a three-year programme.

Jill Constantine, the director of the Arts Council Collection, says many galleries face “staffing issues”, while the cost of receiving loans can be prohibitive. “Sometimes, security or environmental issues get in the way,” she adds.

Arts Council England is working with regional development bodies across the country to support loans via its Ready to Borrow scheme. Grants are awarded to support venues in improving exhibition spaces, such as adding display cases or upgrading temperature controls and lighting.

Loan demands

Simon Brown, the curator of collections at Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, says grants are a good starting point for regional museums, which are often concerned about what demands they will face if they request loans. “Smaller museums may not even bother asking, for that reason,” he says.

While the Mendoza Review notes that many partnerships, long-term loans and spotlight programmes already operate in England, it calls for a new partnership framework to provide a better infrastructure.

According to Blatchford, those areas currently missing out will be able to benefit from increased activity and innovations in lending only if there is more funding to support it.

“There needs to be more money in the whole system – for the nationals and the regional museums,” he says.

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