Ensure your governing body is up to scratch

Piotr Bienkowski, Issue 115/03, p15, 04.03.2015
It is not particularly original to cite governance as a key factor in the survival and development of museums. But I am increasingly concerned that too many museums are not addressing basic issues of governance and so are suffering.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme, which I direct, recently published a summary of the learning that is emerging from it. Governance is one of five areas of museum practice and management that we have learned is critical for embedding participatory practice.

Long-term, sustainable change is only effective if trustees (or the equivalent governing body) support and understand participation: they need training, ongoing development and evaluation.

But governing bodies also need to understand their remit and responsibilities, and too often that is not the case. This not only undermines the development of a participatory culture, but also threatens a museum’s survival.

I see many museums whose governing body simply does not function. Members do not have the requisite knowledge and experience; they have no clear roles or portfolios; they do not understand their legal responsibilities; there is no succession planning; no clear oversight or even understanding of the finances of the museum; and they interfere in the day-to-day running of the venue and do not understand their relationship with the director.

In some cases, this has led to a crisis, with growing deficits and emergency action initiated by stakeholders and funders.

Funders are losing patience with museums that do not sort out governance issues. They recognise the signs of poor governance and will not continue to fund museums where it is inherently weak, as it is too risky.

It’s not that hard to solve, and lots of advice and training for board development is available through museum development programmes and business in the arts schemes.

Remarkably, some governing bodies reject such board development – “We do things differently here” is a common refrain. Unfortunately, in every case that I have heard this, the museum has been in a crisis.

If the governing body is not prepared to recognise that it is not functioning effectively, then others have to. This is the responsibility of a director, who needs to have the confidence to stand up to the chair and board to tell them they need training.

But directors can also call on allies for help: funders and stakeholders will recognise the need for board development, and that external voice can be enough to persuade the board to act.

Poor governance is a barrier to a museum’s long-term resilience and to embedding community participation. Don’t let your board get away with it.

Piotr Bienkowski is a cultural consultant and project director of a Paul Hamlyn Foundation initiative, Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners


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15.03.2015, 18:18
I would like to know about the charter governing the Scottish Museums in Edinburgh. I assume it has one. What is it? Thanks