What’s in store?

The Museums Association's Effective Collections programme is coming to an end after five years. But are objects any better used as a result, asks Geraldine Kendall
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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What do revellers at a London vintage festival, retired coalminers in Scotland and artisan groups in Tanzania have in common?

All benefited in some way from Effective Collections, the Museums Association’s (MA) grant-giving programme to help museums develop creative uses for the parts of their collections that rarely see the light of day. The scheme came to an end in March after more than five years.

Effective Collections originally grew out of Collections for the Future, a report published by the MA in 2005, which pinpointed weaknesses in the way museums were managing and using their stored collections.

In response to these findings, the association developed a programme to fund projects and policy work, supported by a grant of nearly £1m from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

The programme offered funding of between £10,000 and £25,000 to enable museums and galleries across the UK to undertake collections reviews, loans, disposals and outreach programmes. The overriding aim was to get objects out of storage for the benefit of the public.

It facilitated 34 projects involving over 100 museums across the UK, many of which found inventive uses for collections that went far beyond traditional display (see box below), showing what could be achieved with a relatively small amount of funding and a lot of imagination.

Alongside the individual project work, Effective Collections tried to stimulate a wider culture change across the sector, mainly by promoting loans and disposal as tools for responsible collections management through publications such as the Disposal Toolkit (2008) and Smarter Loans (2012).

But did Effective Collections achieve what it set out to do? “It’s done fantastically well against its original objectives,” says Sally Colvin, the MA’s collections coordinator. “We started off with some modest targets for disposals and long-term loans and these have been blown out of the water.”

Over the years, the programme moved far beyond its initial scope. “At the start it was much more focused on collections management, not about changing the way people work,” says Colvin.

“But some of our most significant achievements have been to establish new ways of partnership working or working with individuals to champion change at organisations, and these only came out through the process.”

These unexpected outcomes were influenced partly by the huge financial and political changes that have taken place since 2006, says Colvin, which left participants more open to finding more creative ways of working together and maximising resources.

But what will be the next step for collections? Museums Journal asked six leading figures across the sector for their views.

Thematic collecting

Nick Merriman, director, Manchester Museum


“There has been so much focus on disposal that we’ve almost forgotten to think about museums as collecting institutions – but museums must continue to collect so that they don’t stagnate,” says Merriman. He argues that a thematic rather than encyclopaedic approach to collecting may be a more sustainable way forward.

He also thinks there needs to be a renewed focus on developing stored collections for research. “The vast majority of collections [particularly in university museums] are not there for display and will never be of interest to the public. We should be working much more closely with universities to develop collections-based academic research and to unlock the potential of stored collections for that purpose.”

He is sceptical about the long-term viability of disposal by transfer to other museums. “You get this merry-go-round situation where collections are just being passed around museums,” Merriman says. “With disposal, I get the sense that we’ve only nibbled around the edges.”

Going digital

Sally MacDonald, director of museums and public engagement, University College London (UCL)

For Sally MacDonald, digitisation will be one of the next big leaps forward in making collections more accessible to a wider audience. “The advantage of 3D surrogates is that they give people the opportunity to play with objects in new ways and to see details that they couldn’t see with the naked eye,” she says. It also offers a way of displaying “tricky” objects without harming them, she adds.

Another change that digitisation could bring is facilitating more interaction between audiences and objects. “The web is increasingly used for creating a dialogue and yet we’re still in broadcast mode, putting objects on display with a label saying ‘this is the truth’.”

She believes that museums must start rethinking the purpose of certain collections rather than maintaining an outlook of preservation at all costs.

“Many university collections were collected with the idea that they might get damaged or destroyed in the course of research,” MacDonald says.

That changed with the onset of universal care standards, says MacDonald, but it is now re-emerging in a different way. “At UCL we’ve started building up a library with different types of materials that we regard as transitory. It can be used as a tool for makers and designers and the intention is that some of the collection gets used and destroyed in the process.”

As environmental sustainability becomes more pressing, collections care will also adapt. “We’ve started looking much more at microclimates as an alternative to universal environmental standards for objects. We need to think about how we house collections more sustainably.”

Choosing the best objects

Ken Arnold, head of public programmes, Wellcome Collection, London

Ken Arnold has reservations about the idea of getting as much of the collection as possible on display. “I wonder if we should worry less about getting more and more of our collections out there for all to see potentially all the time, and concentrate instead on choosing the best and most relevant today,” he says.

“I think that one of the real functions of museums is to store material out of sight so that it can be repeatedly and excitingly rediscovered. Unless most objects are off display and out of sight for most of the time, they don’t have time to ‘rest’ and gain revived meaning.”

Like Sally MacDonald, Arnold believes that a rethink in some areas of collections policy could lead to more imaginative ways of working with objects.

“There are a great number of really good ideas out there that aren’t being done be-cause people are worried about ‘conservation’ issues and because people aren’t encouraged to experiment and break down pre-determined formats,” he says.

But he has doubts about digital engagement. “What I’m less sure about is the things that have been done on the web to gain more exposure for collections. [Barring some exceptions] I don’t think the idea of ‘digitising’ objects and puting them online does much for anyone.”

Changing direction

Matthew Tanner, director, ss Great Britain Trust, Bristol

Matthew Tanner believes a change of direction is needed because of a “general downgrading” of core curatorial skills, particularly in relation to collections care and building up subject expertise.

This is, he says, “due to the prevalence of short-term contracts and the appalling profusion of training that emphasises the role of museum manager over that of curator as a preferred career trajectory.”

Digital and community engagement should not overshadow access to real objects, he adds. “Good work has been done through Effective Collections, but there’s still more to do in terms of simply putting visitors in close proximity to real objects.

“I feel that while the emphasis on digital engagement and community involvement may be positive, it obscures the fact that lots of museums just don’t give their visitors enough access to the real thing. Over-designed new museums just add layers of mediation between visitors and objects.”

He wants “more, low-key access to objects, starting from where the visitor is, not from where the profession think they should be”.

Working with the public

Janet Barnes, chief executive, York Museums Trust

Janet Barnes thinks co-production with the public could be key in future. “I’m interested in the scope of volunteers becoming much more involved in learning about and gaining much more expertise in collections. "It’s a fundamental shift in our thinking,” she says.

Barnes believes the internet has great potential in this area. “As part of our application to the Renaissance major grant programme, we proposed a scheme called Digivols, which will involve putting our collections out on the internet to allow people with interest to comment and offer their input. We’re interested in attracting lots of layers of interest, along with the traditional curatorial take on things.”

That approach has already reaped dividends, Barnes says.  “We did a project with Roman objects, where we thought they were something to do with hairdressing but we weren’t sure.

“We invited a group of hairdressing students to look at the objects and they could say straight away, ‘Oh that’s for ringlets’, and tell us how the objects were used. They were experts, even though they were not the traditional idea of experts.”

Barnes also believes that there will be an increasing need for proactive disposal and more selective collecting. “We have a big problem knowing what to do with stuff from archaeological excavations – how much do we store and how do we decide what’s meaningful or not,” she says.

“The economics of it means we’ve now reached a point where we have to stop dithering and make a decision about what we do with this material.”

In full effect: collections projects

Derby Museums
Derby’s Showcase project reviewed four areas of the collection and worked with community groups to co-create small object displays in off-site showcases. In one installation, museum objects were used in a 1981-style DJ Lounge at a vintage festival on London’s Southbank in 2011.

National Mining Museum Scotland
The museum worked with a number of local organisations to create loan boxes and a display case service to assist carers of elderly people from the Scottish coalmining communities, for whom the day-to-day objects held powerful associations.

National Museums Scotland and Scottish Transport and Industrial Collections Network
The Old Tools, New Uses project reviewed domestic technology collections across Scottish museums to make collaborative decisions about disposal of duplicates. Items such as sewing machines were recycled back into daily use in Tanzania and Sierra Leone via a charity.

Stuff matters: key conclusions from the final Effective Collections report

  • Collections are a resource to be used for public benefit now, not just preserved for future generations. Museums should fully embed this principle into their work.
  • There has been a cultural shift towards proactive disposal and loan as a responsible part of collections management. More than 100 objects a month are now advertised through the Museums Association’s online Find an Object website for these purposes.
  • Collection reviews are an excellent means of solving problems within an underused collection and improving staff knowledge and practice. Funders should only support collections reviews that have a clear purpose and outcomes for use of collection and public impact.
  • The Effective Collections model of coaching, peer networks and bringing in external subject specialists gave organisations the confidence to tackle daunting processes such as disposal and to better advocate for loans and partnership working.
  • Funders should support museums to work in partnership both within and outside the sector in order to share their collections. An outward-looking, altruistic ethos helps short-term project funding to benefit the wider sector.
  • As figureheads, museum and gallery directors should lead the way in embedding loans as a core activity. They should know when their museum rejects a loan request and why.

Geraldine Kendall is a freelance journalist.

Download the report here (pdf)


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