ACE supports independence and passion

John Orna-Ornstein , Issue 114/03, p14,
Step into a 16th-century time capsule as you visit the brilliant Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. Discover Cornwall through 70 museums, many of them tiny and entirely volunteer-run.

Explore the history of the world through Oxford’s wonderful and forward-thinking university collections. Or become immersed in an England of the past as you travel the streets of Beamish.

Since joining Arts Council England (ACE), I have visited many museums, and I have been impressed by the astonishing collections – arguably the finest in the world – and the passion of the staff that make those collections sing.

I love the individuality of our museums – their brilliance and quirkiness – and the wonder that engenders in their visitors.

I have been thinking a lot about the role of the arts council as the development body for English regional museums during this challenging time for the sector. Is it to support museums in changing lives?

Is it to maximise the resources coming into the sector? Perhaps to advocate for museums and culture more broadly?

All of these things are correct, but I believe the heart of our role is to enable museums to be independent-minded, confident about their own individual purpose, and passionate in the delivery of that purpose.

I am absolutely clear that we are not looking for identikit museums. The museums that are thriving in difficult times are the ones that are certain about their purpose and focused on what they aim to achieve.

Are we aiming for enjoyment and learning first and foremost? Then a museum needs to be immersive, colourful and story heavy, with all sorts of points of immediate access.

Are we aiming for dialogue and bringing people together? Then provide mediators and provocations, points of meeting and opportunities to handle.

Are we aiming for social transformation? Then change the entry requirements for jobs and provide training opportunities, focus your energy on turning small-scale community partnership programmes into the raison d’etre for your organisation, and make sure that the starting points for engagement really work for just about everyone.

And so on. But museums can’t be all things to all people, and funders and other stakeholders should not expect them to be.

Back to the role of the arts council. If we are to support this individual brilliance, then we need to fund small museums as well as large ones, because some of the best collections, best people and best practice are found in smaller settings.

We need to focus our energy on resilience and developing an independent-minded approach.

We need to provide support networks that allow museums without significant resources to flourish.

We need to make best use of the limited funds available and to ensure the sector is as joined up as possible.

And we need to advocate, clearly and confidently, for our wonderful, individual museums.

The arts council’s priorities in the coming months include: a focus on supporting resilience; effective Major Partner Museums with a positive role across the wider sector; funding streams that are widely accessible; and working closely with other funders and cross-sector bodies including national museums.

We need to avoid duplication and leverage maximum impact, and to strategically focus on priority areas that allow museums to flourish at a difficult time.

ACE wants to be as open and accessible as possible, through me and through our network of relationship managers across the country.

I can be contacted at or on Twitter at @johnornao

John Orna-Ornstein is the director of museums at Arts Council England