How national reviews benefit local museums

Jilly Burns, Issue 119/01, 01.01.2019
National Museums Scotland is midway through its third national strategy, Across Scotland: 2016-2020. This focuses on sharing Scotland’s collections, engaging and inspiring people, and strengthening skills and expertise nationally.  

Our national programmes began in 2006, and since then there has been a desire from the Scottish museum sector for us to share collections expertise more widely. This has been supported through a free collections advice and training programme for Scottish museums, which has provided training for nearly 3,000 participants.  

Beyond this, we are seeking to support local museums in their critical need to build collections knowledge, and helping them to appraise and care for collections across all museum disciplines.

We have carried out two national collection reviews: one of domestic technology and another of Pacific collections, both funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

Reviews of the Ancient Egypt and East Asia collections are under way, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. We are also about to begin a fossils collections review and natural sciences survey, funded by the John Ellerman Foundation.

The first project employed a technology specialist, with a resulting review that assisted several museums in identifying significant objects. It also informed some disposals, including dispersal to local and international charities.

The second review employed a new curator to work alongside a specialist in Pacific collections to fast-track training in object appraisal with a new professional, allowing her to produce the national collection review, which was then peer reviewed by colleagues.

Our work to support reviews of national collections is creating more capacity for local museums, in terms of access to resources and expertise, in a sustainable and fair way. This is possible only with the kind support of external funders.

The new investment from the John Ellerman Foundation is hugely important, with challenges in stewardship surrounding natural sciences collections noted as one of the critical areas requiring support in our regular consultations with the sector.  

We are in the process of recruiting a natural sciences curator (fossils) to visit, appraise and advise local museums across Scotland. The aim is to produce a review of fossil collections and a summary report on the “state of the nation” of natural science collections overall, to inform future projects. We look forward to sharing the new stories that emerge from this review and our ancient Egypt and East Asia review next year.

Jilly Burns is the head of national and international partnerships at National Museums Scotland