Museums in south-west England are hugely diverse and have a wide range of needs, according to the South West Museum Development Programme 2018-19 Annual Review.
The development agency supports 220 museums within Arts Council England’s (ACE) Museum Accreditation Scheme across seven counties. About a third of these are entirely run by volunteers.
Victoria Harding, the programme manager for the South West Museum Development Programme, says climate change and tourism are key issues for museums in the region.
“We have been working closely with museums to improve both the care of and access to their natural science collections, as well as considering how we can unlock the directly relevant information these collections hold on climate change, species extinction and biodiversity,” she says. “The south west is the largest tourism market outside London and the south east. It is the south west’s natural environment, culture and heritage that draw large numbers of domestic and overseas visitors.
“Our museums tell the stories of these special places, their festivals and culture. Together, we can make a significant contribution to highlight how climate change is impacting our natural environment.”
Harding says the number of volunteers working in museums in south-west England is also a key factor. “This significant volunteer workforce brings a particular dynamic to how our museums operate and also how we, as a development agency, support these largely independent, volunteer-driven organisations,” she says. “The approach to community engagement is more nuanced, as the community, audience and workforce result in an interrelated form of engagement.”
Harding says one of the key challenges for small museums with lots of volunteers is their capacity to engage in nationally funded initiatives that are often driven by timescales determined by funders, rather than the context in which organisations seeking to participate are operating.
For institutions such as Torquay Museum in Devon, competing with better-funded organisations for financing is a problem, particularly at a time when local authority funding is falling and there is pressure to raise money from admissions, events and retail.
Barry Chandler, the engagement and collections manager at Torquay Museum, says: “Probably our greatest challenge is writing competitive funding applications when we don’t have the time or human resources available to us. We have the equivalent of five full-time staff and no access to consultants. We are in direct competition with museums that are already in receipt of hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional funding each year – and have been for decades.”
Chandler says more financial support from ACE would make a big difference. “With Designation funding, we are in competition with organisations such as major universities, large city museums and national collections,” he says. “We think we are in the bottom 5% of Designated collections in terms of funding and resources. We are actually marked harshly by ACE because we don’t have stable finances or significant council support, making it even harder for us to get the funding we need.”
Low visitor numbers
The challenges of running museums in the region were highlighted by the temporary closure of Truro’s Royal Cornwall Museum in January. The museum, which was struggling with declining income levels and low visitor numbers, took the decision to shut for at least eight months, while it works on a new operating model. Eight members of staff were made redundant.
The Royal Institution of Cornwall, which runs the museum, has appointed Jonathan Morton, the head of business and operations at Tate St Ives, as the museum’s new director. He starts work on 16 March and will develop a business plan for the museum.
Many museums in southwest England are small and in rural areas. To support these institutions, the South West Museum Development Programme has teamed up with the Cornwall Museums Partnership (CMP) to develop the Rural Proofing Resilience project. This two-year initiative, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is for smaller museums across Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset.
Emmie Kell, the chief executive of CMP, says: “The project was informed by four previous years of investment via the HLF Catalyst umbrella programme, which identified the kinds of support that work best in helping museums to become more sustainable and resilient.
This led us to create a ‘mentored’ programme that provides tailor-made support for museums, informed by an initial audit of needs. The programme covers business planning, marketing, fundraising, finance and governance.
“What’s been great about the programme is that it is specifically designed for smaller museums in coastal and rural locations, and taps into the museum development officers’ knowledge and relationships with smaller Accredited museums. It’s been a great way of using museum development investment to lever additional funds from the Heritage Fund.”