The big picture - Museums Association

The big picture

Scotland's first national museum strategy launched 10 years ago - but how have events from the past decade shifted priorities?
Children at Provost Skene House in Aberdeen

The world was a different place when Scotland’s first national museums strategy launched in April 2012.

A decade later – after austerity, two divisive referenda, protests against climate inaction and racial injustice, and a global pandemic – the sector’s priorities have significantly changed.

Sector development body, Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) is now consulting on a new strategy, which is due to be launched in January 2023 and run until at least 2030.

The goals of the first strategy, Going Further, were to maximise the potential of collections, strengthen links between communities and collections, develop skills and foster a culture of enterprise and collaboration, as well as enhancing sustainability and encouraging a global perspective. Joe Traynor, MGS’s head of programme and partnerships, says although these priorities remain relevant, ambitions have grown.

“The sector is more focused on the bigger issues – and leading on them – than ever before,” he says. From the climate crisis to legacies of empire, museums are increasingly positioning themselves as spaces to address the most challenging questions of our era. This is reflected in the roundtables MGS is running as part of the strategy’s discovery phase, which have looked at subjects such as the environment, fair work and employment practice, and decolonisation.

“We hope the key themes are strong in terms of the big policy areas,” says Traynor. “But we’re open-minded – it will be a strategy that is written by the sector.”

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Relevance is likely to be a driving force in all parts of the strategy, he adds: “Something that seems to be key across the board is relevance to communities, policy and society. There’s a lot around how museums need to change, react and be relevant.”

We’re looking forward to a robust, practical and forward-thinking strategy

The last strategy gave the sector a framework for development, but was also adopted during a time of great change. We appreciate that Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) is taking its time to thoroughly develop the next strategy, as the sector continues to live through and recover from the impact of Covid-19.

It is early days in the process, but the sector sessions we have attended have covered a breadth of issues and resulted in useful sector-wide discussions. We’re looking forward to working closely with MGS over the coming months to develop a robust, practical and forward-thinking strategy that will take Scotland’s museums into a new era.

Emma Halford-Forbes is the coordinator of Industrial Museums Scotland

Lining up

Like the Scottish government’s wider cultural strategy, MGS’s plan will align museums closely with policy areas such as health, wellbeing, social care, place-making and education.

While many are eager to move beyond Covid-19, the impact of the pandemic cannot be ignored. The strategy will need to recognise the huge shifts in working practices that have taken place – such as digital engagement and remote working – as well as the significant financial challenges facing the sector.

“It has to take into account that we’re still in a crisis situation,” says Sarah Burry-Hayes, University Museums in Scotland coordinator. However, she believes there will also be opportunities for museums to form new partnerships and demonstrate their value as society grapples with the toll the pandemic has taken on areas such as mental health.

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“There is a feeling of change, because we’ve had to deal with something we’ve never had to before, and that’s made us think about doing things differently,” she says.

Burry-Hayes, who helped develop the first strategy, says that aside from Covid, the most significant shift over the past decade is a bigger focus on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Although recognised as a priority in 2012, the thinking on EDI was “far less advanced – it wasn’t a fully developed concept”, says Burry-Hayes. This won’t be the case in the new strategy, as “there’s a massive amount of work to be done”.

This means not just diversifying but democratising; there is a consensus that over the next decade, museums will work much more collaboratively with communities.

With government backing, Scotland’s museums have more leeway to take meaningful action in areas such as decolonisation.

Last year, the University of Aberdeen became the first UK institution to formally repatriate a Benin bronze to Nigeria – and the process is also under way at Glasgow Museums.

Burry-Hayes says: “It’s a complete mindset, the way museums are thinking about it and proactively searching for people and asking ‘can you tell us what we should do with certain collections, how we can better work with and represent you, and how can we become truly inclusive?’.”

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Open approach

In the past 10 years, routes into the sector have also diversified, and this will be a strong focus in the new strategy. But with jobs in museums scarce, there could be greater emphasis on the sector providing workplace learning to help young people, who have missed out on essential work experience during the pandemic, develop transferable skills that will enable them to find employment in other areas. “Cultural organisations offer an environment in which people can find their feet,” says Burry-Hayes.

The Burrell Collection in Glasgow reopens in late March following a £68m redevelopment

The diversity of Scotland’s museums means that a national strategy cannot be too prescriptive – its purpose is to offer a loose framework to help museums focus their planning and report their work. The first strategy has been a vital tool for showing how the sector has met the government’s priorities, building up a valuable bank of evidence demonstrating the impact of this work.

MGS’s collaborative approach to developing the new strategy has been welcomed by the sector.

“They are asking the right questions in the right way and I expect the new strategy to be ambitious for the sector,” says Mike Benson, director of the Scottish Crannog Centre.

The past decade has been a lesson in the futility of long-term predictions.

But no matter what the future brings, the strategy will make the case for the power of museums and their place at the heart of society’s most pressing challenges.

“Post-Covid and post-Brexit, the role of museums as places of positive change is more important than it has been for some time,” says Benson.

I hope the strategy will address key sector challenges, and new priorities and ways of working

I applaud Museums Galleries Scotland for the thorough, inclusive and considered nature of its current consultation, and am hopeful the result will be a robust strategy, addressing both key sector challenges and new priorities and ways of working, as the sector emerges from the pandemic experience.

Museums and galleries are central to Scotland’s cultural infrastructure, and its local and regional identity. The benefits they bring to both individual and community wellbeing and prosperity, as highlighted in the Museums Association’s Scotland edition of Museums Change Lives, cannot be underestimated, and as part of our national recovery, are more crucial than ever.

However, increasing financial pressures over the past decade, accentuated by the pandemic, has limited the sector’s potential and capacity to contribute fully across the breadth of Scottish government objectives.

The new strategy will need to be appropriately resourced to ensure museums can innovate and respond positively to their changed environment in creative ways, becoming more resilient and more representative of their communities in the process.

Gillian Findlay is the cultural venues manager (museums and galleries) at City of Edinburgh Council and the president of the Museums Association

Join us to discuss these issues and more at the Museums Association Annual Conference in Edinburgh on 3-5 November

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