Scotland’s museums and galleries have not one but two new strategic documents to set their course for the coming decade. At the end of February, the Scottish government published its long-awaited culture strategy and last week, Museums Galleries Scotland launched the third and final delivery plan for its 2012 museum strategy.
The two documents are designed to work in synergy together. The government’s overarching culture strategy has three main aims: strengthening culture; transforming through culture; and empowering through culture.
The second aim, transforming through culture, is likely to be the one with the most far-reaching implications, pledging to “place culture as a central consideration across all policy areas, including: health and wellbeing, economy, education, reducing inequality and realising a greener and more innovative future”.
This is a welcome recognition of the kind of socially-engaged work that many cultural organisations have already been pioneering, and it could open up a wide range of new cross-sector opportunities and partnerships for the Scottish cultural sector.
With Scotland aiming to position itself at the forefront of the green revolution, it’s also worth noting that “environmental prosperity” has been placed front and centre on the cultural agenda.
The strategy’s emphasis on place-making will be good news for the museum sector, which is particularly well placed to meet this brief. The strategy’s third aim, empowering through culture, recognises “each community’s own local cultures in generating a distinct sense of place, identity and confidence”, while one of the strategy’s guiding principles is the importance of place – “community, landscape, language and geography”.
The strategy could have implications for the cultural workforce, in which low pay and casual working practices are endemic. The government has pledged to advocate for “fair work practices and a living wage” for people employed in the sector, and is exploring the possibility of making its existing Fair Work Agreement criteria part of cultural grant schemes.
With diversity an ongoing issue for the sector, the document will facilitate partnerships to share new approaches and codes of practice that ensure organisations “put diversity at their core”.
It also makes an eye-catching promise to introduce “appropriate remuneration” for board members of national culture and heritage bodies to help recruit more diverse candidates.
Meanwhile, cultural access and education is also prioritised, with a new Arts Alive programme that will bring up to 250 cultural sessions to schools and communities, including five artists' residencies.
Many organisations are concerned about the implications of Brexit for the culture sector, and the Scottish government says it will continue to press the UK government for “much needed changes to immigration, trade and wider mobility issues for our cultural sectors” – though there is no sign yet that Westminster is heeding those calls.
Museums Galleries Scotland’s (MGS) latest delivery plan takes the government’s wider vision and fleshes out the detail on how it will be achieved. The document is intended to be a transitional plan that will signpost the way to MGS’s new strategy, which will be developed over the next two to three years.
The new delivery plan prioritises sector resilience, workforce development, responding to the climate emergency and increasing digital capacity and infrastructure. The document is intended to reflect the ambitious nature of the museum and gallery sector while also being realistic about what can be achieved after a decade of widespread funding cuts.
“People are really ambitious in the sector and are really delivering on that ambition,” says Lucy Casot, the chief executive officer of MGS. “It’s something that endlessly impresses me about our sector. But at the same time they are saying ‘please stop asking us to do more with less’.”
The new delivery plan will see MGS focus on areas where it has a role and recognise where it can facilitate while others lead. “One of the things that austerity has made us understand is where we are really strong and where things are best left to others,” Casot says.
One of the key areas in which MGS sees a leadership role for museums is responding to the climate emergency. In addition to providing funding to support greener alternatives in museums, measure environmental impact and share best practice, MGS will also promote “the role of the sector in engaging the public through education and action”.
This will include some soon-to-be announced plans for action to coincide with the crucial COP26 climate change summit due to take place in Glasgow this November. The delivery plan also places an emphasis on working across sectors on broader agendas such as place-making, health and wellbeing and tourism.
One way in which MGS plans to facilitate partnerships, collaboration and cross-sector working is through its new Forum Connections project, which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The four-year project will see MGS assist and champion 12 geographic museum forums, two of which have been newly created: the West of Scotland Museums and Heritage Forum and the Lothian Museums Forum.
“We’ve adopted a geographic approach to how we use these forums,” says Casot. “They’re all different and all looking for different things from us. It’s a place-based approach that looks at what other things are going on in that area.”
Another key focus of the plan is workforce and skills development. MGS intends to build on its Skills for Success vocational training programme, which is singled out for praise in the government’s culture strategy. The scheme trialled new training and recruitment practices intended to break down entry barriers and diversify the sector. MGS says it will be able to offer this Scottish Vocational Qualification in museum and gallery practice at minimal cost to staff across the sector.
Museum professionals have been broadly supportive of MGS’s delivery plan. “I am pleased that delivering funding and training in digital literacy and capacity are highlighted in the plan,” says Dan Cottam, chair of the recently established Museums and Highland Heritage charity.
“As visitor numbers in the Highlands are threatened, the sector is finding new ways to engage with audiences. I am also very interested to see how the Forum Connections project will develop, in the hope that much needed capacity will be drawn from it to support geographical forums which rely heavily on the (mainly voluntary) time and efforts of an already overstretched sector workforce.”
The vision set out in both of Scotland’s new strategic documents is ambitious – but will the funding be there to back it up?
There was some welcome news for culture in Scotland’s proposed budget for 2020-21 last month, with a small increase for cultural funding bodies - including MGS – whose total combined budget will rise from £66m to £67.3m. There was also good news for Scotland’s national museums and galleries, with the cultural collections budget due to grow from £74.6m to £79.2m.
Unlike their counterparts south of the border, Scotland’s museums have also benefited from the continuity of having the same culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, in place for a decade. Hyslop is well respected for her understanding of the sector and, as her portfolio recently expanded to include a much wider range of responsibilities, it will be interesting to see how this will inform her department’s approach to culture.
But local authority funding remains an area of concern, says Casot. “The Scottish government gets culture. But local authorities are where the greatest challenges lie. There’s not enough [funding] to meet the needs of the sector.”
There is also the unforeseen and growing crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which is likely to affect the culture sector in a myriad of ways.
A new body, the National Partnership for Culture, has been set up to oversee the delivery of the government’s culture strategy and advise ministers on how they can better support culture.
As the country moves into a new decade beset by global challenges and uncertainty, having a clear strategic direction might go a long way.
Moving from conversation to action
This culture strategy builds on the national culture conversation, acknowledging the indisputable place that culture must have at the centre of society and government.
We want to harness the power of culture to strengthen communities and to transform lives; to improve health and wellbeing; to contribute to growing the economy with products, services, jobs and investment and to bring creative approaches to design better communities.
I want this strategy to empower people everywhere to celebrate and recognise culture in its many forms. It sets out the principles we will use to guide future policies and initiatives. It sets out a suite of ambitions to be realised for culture to thrive.
The context of the strategy is a time of unprecedented financial and societal challenges. It has never been more important to develop new, and strengthen existing, partnerships and local and national leadership. We in the Scottish Government want to support the work in communities, organisations and by individuals to boost the benefits of culture's role for wellbeing.
I want the conversation to continue and for words to become actions. That is why I am establishing a National Partnership for Culture to take a comprehensive view of our cultural landscape and advise my fellow ministers and I on how we can support culture more effectively. The partnership will seek views from across the culture and other sectors to create better understanding and synergies.
And we will continue that cultural conversation as we strive to strengthen, transform and empower.
Extract from Fiona Hyslop's foreword, A Culture Strategy for Scotland