The conversation

Paul Greenhalgh, Issue 115/05, p17, 01.05.2015
What does the future hold for regional museums?
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Paul Greenhalgh is the director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

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Ellen McAdam is the director of Birmingham Museums Trust

Dear Ellen:
Having been back in the UK for four years after years in Washington DC, and now working in the beautiful city of Norwich, it is clear that our museums and universities are going through a period of change.

The principal driving force behind the change is clear enough: money. But if the cause is simple, its effects are complex and affect absolutely every aspect of museum life. Is this as true for you in Birmingham as it is in our museum? Best wishes, Paul

Dear Paul: The absence of money is certainly precipitating change, but the other factor is time. Since it was founded in 1885, the Birmingham Museums Trust has operated as a cultural service, funded by public money for the benefit of citizens. To survive we must become a cultural business, replacing public funding with self-generated income.

Birmingham Museums Trust already earns more than 50% of its turnover and this is rising. But the reality is that growing a business takes time and the reduction in public funding is happening quickly. Had we but world enough and time… Best wishes, Ellen

Dear Ellen: I could not agree more. Raising money through development and enterprise consumes much time and energy, and creating the machinery that allows museums to deliver ongoing results necessitates investment.

You need money and time to generate money and time. Do you think the country’s regional organisations have the potential to earn 50% of their income?

Is it more difficult to achieve a functioning economic structure from non-public funds in some regions than it is in others? It clearly demands a different approach from region to region. Best wishes, Paul
Dear Paul: The potential to grow income exists in all regional museums, but the model will vary. Birmingham Museums Trust has the major overhead of caring for the city’s historical encyclopedic collection of 800,000 objects.

Our task is to find new ways of using the collection to attract young and diverse audiences, and generate income. Other organisations have different challenges and find different solutions.

I am a big fan of Bede’s World in Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, which has engaged local audiences with a range of options including live music, an art studio and some rather fetching goats. Best wishes, Ellen
Dear Ellen: My first comment also implied that  finance has an effect on how we train the next generation of museum professionals.

Caring for our collections and creating exhibitions is core to what we do, but I worry that in the future things such as archival work, research, publication, travelling exhibitions, conservation and serious acquisition will be greatly reduced.

How do we keep these things alive and vital while focusing on fundraising, marketing, public service and inter-organisational diplomacy? Best wishes, Paul

Dear Paul: I share your concern that the need to generate income and engage new audiences may squeeze out collections-related expertise. The Warwick report is right in that part of the solution lies in a more holistic view of the museum sector, in which regional and national institutions are seen as complementary, not Manichaean opposites.

Regional collections are of international significance and the capacity of regional museums and galleries to use them to engage local audiences is as valuable as the global reach of the nationals. More exchange of people and ideas would create better opportunities for the next generation of professionals and their audiences. Best wishes, Ellen