Taskforce focus on funding, collections and relevance

The Museums Association convened the Museums Taskforce in 2016 to look at the challenges and opportunities that UK museums face in the short to medium term. Jonathan Knott reports on its main findings, which are being published this month
Jonathan Knott
In summer 2016, the Museums Association (MA) convened the Museums Taskforce “in response to the increasingly challenging financial situations that many museums across the UK face”. Chaired by Laura Pye, the head of culture for Bristol City Council, it comprised 15 senior museum professionals, representing all four UK nations.

To inform its discussions, the taskforce “looked at the available research and evidence together with the reviews, reports and strategies that are being debated and developed across the UK”. Its findings are published this month and focus on three areas that are critical for the future of the sector: funding, collections and relevance.

The taskforce was set up soon after the announcement of a review of the English museum sector in the government’s culture white paper in March 2016. Pye says a key motivation was to make sure the voice of museums from across the UK is heard in conversations about the sector’s future. “We thought it was important for the sector itself to look at where we were with museums – and from more than just the English point of view,” she says.

No room for complacency

Discussions by the team working on the Mendoza Review of museums in England and the taskforce fed into each other. But Pye says that while the taskforce recognises the review’s positive findings, its report takes a less rose-tinted stance. “There are challenges we need to address as a sector, and we need to not be complacent about that,” she stresses.

The taskforce addressed funding largely through separate statements for each nation, which were published between February and May last year. Each includes a recommendation that “lottery funding should be used strategically and directed towards making the most of the museums and galleries that we already have” – sentiments echoed by Mendoza. For England, Wales and Northern Ireland, they point out the risk or reality of funding cuts leading to reduced opening hours, public access and programming, as well as closures. The Scottish statement does not directly discuss these difficulties, but taskforce member Gillian Findlay, the curatorial and engagement manager at Edinburgh City Council, acknowledges that “the funding environment that museums operate within is increasingly challenging”.

The main taskforce report stresses that “museums need long-term strategic investment and consistent levels of funding” – but the practicalities are different for each nation. The statements for England and Wales say there is an “urgent need” for the relevant government “to develop a strategic approach to museums and their funding”. The statement for Northern Ireland, where the devolved government is in deadlock, says “museum functions are strengthened where there is a collective strategic approach, including central and local government and a broad range of strategic bodies”.

In Scotland, the government is developing a culture strategy, and Museums Galleries Scotland will begin gathering information for a national strategy for museums and galleries later this year. The taskforce’s funding statement on Scotland urges the country’s government to consult widely with museums to ensure the “alignment and synergy” of the two strategies.

Findlay says: “The current government has a strong record of encouraging a collective and strategic approach to how cultural bodies operate.”

More active approach

The Welsh and English funding statements recommend a more active approach from official bodies when museums face closure because of the withdrawal of local authority money. They say that when this happens, “government and strategic bodies should intervene in order that viable and strategic plans can be sought”.

Pye says this is not necessarily about financial support. “In the past, we have lost museums very quickly,” she adds. “Museums have shut and then started trying to look for a business plan. The intervention could mean going in and developing a business plan before museums are shut. The recommendation is for key stakeholders such as national governments, the arts council and the Heritage Lottery Fund having a stronger voice in those conversations.”

Closures have so far been rare. But as museums prioritise public-facing activities, many are neglecting crucial behind-the-scenes work. The taskforce report highlights widespread problems with collections management, saying: “It is necessary to break the cycle of having too much material that is not being used or delivering public benefit, not enough information about what museums have, and insufficient capacity to manage collections and make confident and informed decisions.”

Culture change

Pye says that a culture change is needed, and believes that the solution is likely to involve being braver about disposals, as well as reducing documentation bureaucracy. “We can’t be in a position where curators and other staff are scared to manage their collections properly,” she says.

However, it is not a simple matter of getting rid of objects. A project funded by Historic England, due to be published this spring, asked five institutions of various sizes to investigate the potential of rationalisation for their archaeology collections. Gail Boyle, the chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology, a project partner, says: “All five were consistent in their conclusion that discarding large quantities of archival material was not the best or most cost-effective way to resolve the archaeological archive storage problem.”

Contemporary collecting

Despite demands on space, museums need to keep looking for new objects. The report recommends that museums develop “contemporary collecting plans that reflect the diversity of modern Britain” – an ambition behind projects such as Collecting Birmingham (see below).

The complex challenges of collections management mean that cutting back on expertise is a false economy, says Pye: “To manage your collections properly, you need people with expertise who understand that collection, and also have the capacity to manage it on a day-to-day basis. Without that skill, people can’t make a judgement about what we keep and what we don’t, how we document it, what is most relevant, and what we put on the website.”

Effective advocacy

In turn, museums need to be able to effectively advocate the contribution they make, in order to secure the necessary resources to invest in collections work. The relevance section of the taskforce report underlines the many benefits that museums can contribute to society, including enhancing health and wellbeing and revitalising local economies.

The extent to which museums are maximising this potential is different in each nation. Findlay says the taskforce’s sub-committee for Scotland was keen to build on the Scottish museum sector’s “excellent track record in fostering partnerships to progress national economic and social objectives”.

Taskforce member Elaine Hill, the heritage development officer at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, says: “Many museums in Northern Ireland have been working successfully with their local communities to reach new and diverse audiences. Through exploring opportunities for contemporary collecting alongside continued collaboration and partnership, museums of all sizes can remain relevant to the communities and audiences they serve.”

The potential of museums to make a social impact is increasingly being acknowledged officially. The Mendoza Review refers to “a growing body of evidence demonstrating the range of benefits museums offer” and in Wales, the Light Springs Through the Dark statement, made in 2016 by Ken Skates, the cabinet secretary for economy and infrastructure, said culture has “growing value to our economy” and can make a “vital contribution” to other policy areas.

This opens up promising opportunities for museums to access funding beyond what is designated specifically for culture, and the taskforce calls on museums to make the most of this chance. The report’s funding statements for England, Wales and Northern Ireland recommend that “government and strategic agencies should target cross-departmental funds to support partnership working at a local and national level”.

But Pye emphasises that museums, politicians, and sector bodies cannot afford to rest on their laurels. “We have to constantly remind people that museums aren’t something that happens in a silo,” she says. “They do have a role in wider society."
Collecting Birmingham has built bridges with local communities
The three-year Collecting Birmingham project has run since April 2015 at Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT), with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England. The museum service worked with local communities to identify objects to add to its permanent collection.

The project focused on Ladywood, a diverse inner-city district of Birmingham. The museum service identified specific collection areas to develop, including contemporary art by black, Asian and minority-ethnic artists, and social history. It also identified ethnicity and faith-based communities under-represented in its collection, including Muslim, Chinese, Irish, African-Caribbean and white-British groups.

The project involved museum staff holding focus groups, as well as attending community and religious events. It has resulted in acquisitions, including 100 works by British Jamaican photographer Vanley Burke, who arrived in Birmingham in 1965 aged 15.

Charlotte Holmes, a community engagement officer at BMT, says: “He is an important photographer, who for many years has worked with his community to capture life in the areas the project was looking at. People felt the photos were really important to fight perceived stereotypes and present life as it has been lived.”

The final Collecting Birmingham event is on 27 March.

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