It is a year since the first UK lockdown and museums are still adapting to life under the pandemic. For many, the issues of governance and the role of trustees have been put under the spotlight.
Among them is London’s Florence Nightingale Museum (FNM). Major celebrations were planned in 2020 for the bicentenary of Nightingale’s birth, but these were cancelled. The museum closed at the end of February to undergo a restructure that will lead to a significant cut to its 13-strong team.
FNM director David Green says the closure is a chance for a strategic rethink. In the two-and-a-half years before the pandemic, the museum’s footfall almost doubled, and it had plans to relocate by 2026. Green wants the institution to develop a broader and more global focus – including boosting online engagement – as “the Florence Nightingale Museum of International Nursing”.
In line with this, the museum is recruiting up to six trustees. Four positions are vacant because previous terms have come to an end, and two may be added with an emphasis on developing international relationships. Green says it is important to appoint board members with specialisms in the museum’s focuses of nursing and statistics, and digital skills.
Jonathan Mayes, who leads on governance work at Clore Leadership, says that at a time when revenue has fallen and many staff are on furlough, it is critical that trustees can interrogate a museum’s financial position and make well-judged decisions. But this does not necessarily mean being risk averse.
For example, it may make more sense for a museum not to reopen as soon as it is allowed – forfeiting some short-term income – in order to think more thoroughly about how it needs to change. “Good governance involves being brave,” says Mayes.
The pandemic has not fundamentally changed best-governance practice, according to Mayes, but it has brought it into sharper focus. There is a premium on quick decision-making and people with experience of what it takes to rapidly change an organisation. While it is helpful for a board to include expertise in areas such as law and fundraising, he argues that a passion for the museum’s mission and simple common sense are among the most important attributes.
The pandemic has given time to think about where trustees can add the most possible value.
Maintaining a constructive relationship between the board and management is also paramount, because the crisis is likely to exacerbate any pre-existing difficulties. Trustees need to strike a balance between staying informed and requesting regular updates, says Mayes – and acknowledging the pressure that management is under will go a long way towards resolving tension.
“Any museum chief executive has probably come up with at least four or five different future budgets in the past nine months,” he says. “It’s exhausting to do that, so as a trustee, one of the most important things you can do is to acknowledge that.”
Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) has recently implemented lots of governance changes, including the appointment of Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint chief executives.
BMT is also improving the diversity of its board, having appointed two trustees, Sapreena Kumari and Elly Porter, with expertise in education. Chair Niels de Vos says appointing two women of colour was “an important step that will help us to challenge ourselves to best support the charity in delivering its objectives for the people of Birmingham”.
De Vos says the museum will benefit from Kumari’s experience in engaging with young audiences and diverse communities, and Porter’s knowledge of the international art world.
He says historically, the trust’s board has been skewed towards an older, white and male demographic: “When all of your board are of that description, it can create problems – particularly in a city such as Birmingham, which is very diverse.”
The museum has pledged to further diversify its board. De Vos expects that in two years’ time, it will be a better representation of the city, and of the skills needed by a museum. He says that to support diversity, it is vital to target job advertising broadly, and enlist expert help to make sure the process “is not going to put anyone off by accident, or worse, by design”.
De Vos would like trustees to use their specific expertise to play an active role in the museum’s work. It’s about “helping the executive write the strategy, rather than simply checking they’re delivering the strategy”, he says. “The pandemic has given time to think about where trustees can add the most possible value.”
Good governance is all about people
Museums are seeking dynamic, entrepreneurial and imaginative trustees to help steer them through the coronavirus crisis and beyond
I have always liked the often-quoted phrase that “apart from the collection, a museum’s staff is its greatest asset”. In fact, in terms of managing and developing a museum, nothing is more important than the people involved.
It is all about a strong chairman of the board of trustees who embraces the operating ethos and keeps to a development plan. A close working relationship with the chief executive (or the curator in my case at Grampian Transport Museum), is vital. Between the two, a museum can stay focused by leading the board, staff and volunteers as a tight unit in one direction, and with clear priorities defined by a dynamic development plan.
Grampian Transport Museum, as an entirely self-financing independent, compensates for a lack of financial resources with strong human resources. Our people are led by the chair, with carefully selected trustees who bring a range of skills to create a balanced board. Our trustees also provide genuine enthusiasm – they want the museum to succeed.
The staff and volunteers then work to deliver priorities, which are clearly and openly communicated. The aims currently include exceeding visitor’s expectations and our two watchwords, being topical and relevant.
The same strong chair, who is normally changed every three years, has another important duty: to organise their successor from the existing board and to refresh the skills available to the museum by recruiting new trustees, also in a three-year cycle. This needs to be apparently seamless with the sense of direction carefully protected, restated and communicated to all staff and volunteers.
Sounds difficult? Not really. As long as that key relationship between the chair and head of the paid staff is strong, the trustees, staff and volunteers will work as one team and share the sense of achievement.
Mike Ward is the curator of Grampian Transport Museum, Aberdeenshire