Share value - Museums Association

Share value

Museums and galleries are making their resources go further by sharing skills and knowledge, writes Rebecca Atkinson
Rebcca Atkinson
As the impact of the economic downturn continues, museums are facing unprecedented cuts from central and local government.

Hefty budget reductions are likely to hasten the demise of specialist curators, especially at a regional level, putting more pressure on remaining subject specialists and leaving collections at risk of neglect. Resources for other areas such as marketing, fundraising, education and visitor services will also become more stretched.

When times are tough, it makes sense to club together and share resources. Skill sharing is not just a survival tactic though – it can deliver tangible benefits to the institutions and individuals who participate. It also plays a role in succession planning and ensuring essential skills remain in the sector.

Caitlin Griffiths, head of professional issues at the Museums Association (MA), says skills sharing is a good thing for museums. “It gets people out of their own organisations, helps to develop good networks and is essential for knowledge transfer.”

Sharing skills is of growing importance to funders too. One objective of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) £17m work-based training programme, Skills for the Future, is to deliver sustainable training and share good practice across the sector.

“We want to see the benefits of our investment in great projects shared with people who are not directly involved,” explains Jo Reilly (pictured above), head of participation and learning at the HLF. “Peer-to-peer learning and skill sharing is beneficial and encourages innovation.”

Skill sharing is already happening formally and informally, helped in part by Renaissance in the Regions funding. Renaissance East of England’s Share initiative (see p30) is a good example of how hub museums can offer support to smaller museums, and how structured schemes can help enhance knowledge across the sector.

Meanwhile, subject specialist networks (SSNs) are playing a role in encouraging museum professionals to work together to promote scholarship and workplace skills – and also to maximise resources.

Sharing specialist knowledge

However, funding for SSNs from Renaissance in the Regions has dwindled. Hedley Swain, director of programme delivery at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), says it continues to support them “where possible”. He adds: “The potential of SSNs is great and they do a really powerful job, although we need to be more proactive and clearer about what we want them to do.”

Beyond Renaissance, museums are increasingly embracing partnership working, with more than 1,600 projects undertaken across 16 national museums in 2008-09, according to the National Museum Directors’ Conference. Despite this, there isn’t a nationwide strategy to make sure all museums have access to specialist skills and that expertise is shared efficiently for the good of all.

John Orna-Ornstein, head of London and national programmes at the British Museum (BM), which already runs a successful partnership programme, is a key driving force for the development of a national strategy.

“All museums are suffering from time and resource pressures, which is why having a joined-up strategy is so important,” he says. “There is a realisation among museums that they can’t work completely independently. We’ve got to coordinate and share expertise.”

What shape such a strategy will take remains to be seen. Swain believes SSNs, Renaissance and national museums will all have a role to play. The MLA has recently been discussing a strategic approach to skill sharing with national museums.

In Scotland, a national skills-sharing scheme run by National Museums Scotland (NMS) has already proved a success. It includes SSNs and Scotland-specific specialist networks, as well as training, behind-the-scenes visit and work-shadowing placements – all of which are free to participants. The scheme aims to support people who work in museums and draw together strengths in collections across Scotland.

For example, last year it held a training programme on the care of silver collections, utilising the expertise of George Dalgleish, principal curator of Scottish history at NMS. His knowledge of silver collections in Scotland also led to the 2008 exhibition Silver: Made in Scotland, which featured the most important examples from different collections.

“George is an example of why knowledge of a distributed collection is such an important asset to the sector,” says Jilly Burns, national partnerships manager at NMS. “The course shows how we are encouraging the sharing of professional knowledge and offering advice to museums without a specialist.”

Work placements

Elsewhere, work-shadowing placements are proving a good way for museum professionals to learn new skills in a hands-on environment.

Sheila Asante, collections officer from East Lothian Museums, undertook a placement to find out how Scotland’s national museums coordinated volunteer activity.

“I wanted to develop and implement my own policy and work-shadowing helped me understand how this could work in practice,” she says. NMS will introduce a new national strategy next April, but Burns says the future of the programme remains positive.

“There is no point in keeping what you know to yourself. We’re all interested in the long-term safeguarding and public celebration of objects, collections and associated expertise,” she adds.

Joined-up approach

But challenges remain. Smaller budgets mean sharing resources is even more important, but time pressures may prevent specialists from being able to work with other institutions as well as their own.

There are also geographical difficulties. The fact that Renaissance-funded programmes such as Share have not been replicated across other regions suggests a more joined-up approach is needed. And changing attitudes is still a big hurdle.

“It is easy in the museum sector to focus on your own institution, but the recession and funding cuts means a big change is needed,” says Orna-Ornstein. “National museums also need to be more transparent about what expertise they have available.”

With the recent announcement that the MLA is to be abolished and the future of Renaissance uncertain, the MA’s Griffiths believes a nationwide skill-sharing strategy is still some way off.

“As the landscape changes over the next few years, the impact of skill sharing will be borne out even more,” she says. “There may be an argument for some sort of joined-up approach, but at the moment there doesn’t seem to be the capacity to do this.”

  • Working in partnership is a theme at this year’s Museums Association conference, 4-6 October, Manchester

“Share is essentially a matchmaking service”

Share is a regional skills sharing and partnership scheme run and funded by Renaissance East of England.

“When Renaissance was first introduced, it was badly perceived by non-hub museums, so Share was born out of our desire to ensure the hub museums provided sector-wide benefit,” says Simon Floyd, training and workforce development officer at Renaissance East.

Launched in 2008, Share reached just under 80 per cent of accredited museums in the region last year. The concept of the scheme is that time and expertise are currency.

The region’s four hub museums, along with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, all contribute to a ‘bank’ of staff time, which is then offered free of charge to smaller museums. The scheme is essentially a matchmaking service, ensuring expertise and resources are provided to those museums that need it.

“Making Share a requirement of the funding stream from Renaissance was a good way to encourage skill sharing and getting hubs to realise that building these relationships is in everyone’s interests,” says Floyd.

“Now we’ve proved it does work, museums are proud about being part of the scheme and there is a degree of kudos in having visible partnerships in place.”

For Floyd, hub museums can benefit from sharing their skills as much as smaller ones. Members of Share’s archaeologist network, for example, have built relationships through group site visits that help inform their jobs.

“Renaissance is a bit like a chandelier – it’s joined up at the top but each section hangs separately,” says Floyd. “Share knits people together and enables them to help themselves and each other.”

One notable example of the work Share is facilitating is a series of loans by the British Museum (BM) to three regional museums – Ely Museum, Dunwich Museum and Mill Green Museum.

“The idea for the loan came from a meeting between the BM and the hub, but it was Share and the support it could offer to participating museums that made it possible,” says Floyd. Ely Museum has borrowed a mummified Egyptian cat under the scheme.

“It’s great to have this loan, which will hopefully raise the profile of the museum, but we also needed specialist support to make the most of the object,” explains Elie Hughes, Ely Museum’s only curator.

“Thanks to Share, Hughes – who has minimal experience of working with this sort of object – has been able to consult with an Egyptologist from the Fitzwilliam Museum and a 2D designer from Luton Museum.

“The principals of Share are not based on money but are about finding the right partnerships,” says Floyd. “It challenges the old paradigms of needing a lot of money to do things – actually it’s all about time and expertise.”

For these reasons, he believes Share has a bright future – despite uncertainties about the direction of Renaissance.

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