History lessons

As the Museums Association celebrates its 125th birthday, Geraldine Kendall looks back at the organisation's ongoing impact on collections, staff and audiences, and considers the challenges that it faces today
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
“A museum [in Britain] is a sort of advertising bazaar, or a receptacle for miscellaneous curiosities unfitted for a private house, or it is composed of an accumulation of objects, valuable in themselves but valueless for all practical purposes because they are crowded together or stored away for want of room.”

Those were the words of William Boyd Dawkins, the curator of the Manchester Museum, on the sorry state of his nation’s museums in 1876 in comparison to their “well-officered, well-arranged” European neighbours.

Dawkins’ criticism was to be an important catalyst towards establishing the world’s first Museums Association (MA), which is celebrating its 125th anniversary next month.

In response to Dawkins’ article, Elijah Howarth, the 24-year-old curator of Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, wrote a letter suggesting that an association to foster mutual co-operation between museum curators and managers could help Britain’s institutions clarify their purpose and reach their full potential.

Agreeing with much of what both men said, James Paton, curator of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, put forward a list of essentials required by the museum sector, citing many of the things that the MA still champions today: training and professionalism for curators; adequate finance; loans and exchange programmes between institutions; public appreciation of the nature and function of museums; and a regular conference where professionals could discuss all of these ideas.

It took another decade or so but on 20 June 1889 a small group of delegates representing 11 museums came together for the MA’s inaugural meeting, hosted by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in York.

At the start, MA membership catered primarily to regional museums. Among that first delegation were Liverpool Museum, Stockport Museum Committee, Sunderland Museum, Brighton Museum and, of course, Weston Park, with its farsighted curator Howarth still at the helm.

Ironically, Paton from Glasgow wasn’t there because, for reasons unknown, the first meeting was limited to institutions in England.

Small beginnings

This oversight was soon rectified and by the following year membership had expanded to 27 institutions and 50 individuals, and the MA had published its first periodical.

Early papers discussed such no-nonsense subjects as the “desirability of exhibiting drawers of unmounted skins of birds”, as well as more philosophical musings about the nature of museums themselves: a fundamental question being whether they were for “instruction and recreation” (as defined by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), or merely for instruction alone, as some more conservative members argued, with no responsibility to entertain visitors.

Not every contributor was polite – visitors to the MA’s Cambridge conference in 1891 were told of the city’s museums: “If you don’t find much to imitate, you will at any rate learn what to avoid.”

From those small beginnings the MA began laying the groundwork for many of the policies, initiatives and networks that were to transform the museum sector into what it is today.

“A lot of innovations in the museum sector over the years began at the MA as relatively small projects,” says Mark Taylor, the director of the MA today.

The association’s independence from government and democratic membership structure became a model that was much duplicated overseas. “The MA’s influence is felt worldwide,” Taylor says.

“There are many other countries that followed its lead, and it remains one of the most prominent associations of its kind in the world.”

An early focus was the nature of the museum profession, which unlike other skilled occupations remained ill-defined, poorly paid and somewhat amateur.

“We [curators] are without a history, without traditions, almost without experience,” wrote Paton in 1894. “We have no pride of ancestry, and, as yet, we have a rather undefined social position and public recognition.”

On one infamous occasion, a prospective curator wrote to a leading academic for advice on the skills he might need for the profession. “Stick a damn label on the damn specimen,” came the reply.

But the MA’s publications and annual conference enabled the museum sector to share and standardise their skills and practice. The formulation of a code of ethics for museums proved to be another step towards greater professionalism.

This work has developed over the years and the MA now publishes a detailed document that provides a range of ethical principles to guide all those who work for or govern UK museums.

Academic credentials

In the 1930s the MA had created a formal Museum Diploma, with a syllabus featuring instruction in general museum work and more specialised branches of museum work, as well as many practical elements – including a dreaded final exam in which students were presented with a table of assorted objects to identify.

“People often cried – it was a tough test,” says Charlotte Holmes, the MA’s current museum development officer.

The diploma ran for many years and informed the development of the UK’s first school of museum studies at the University of Leicester and the elements that make up other academic museum qualifications.

In recent times, the diploma has been replaced with the Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA), a less specialised, work-based award that encourages mentoring, peer learning and continuing professional development in any type of museum role.

“The AMA system is quite ground-breaking. It reflects our growing professionalism,” Holmes says.

The MA also became a vocal advocate for a well-paid museum workforce; in the 1910s, in response to adverts from two institutions seeking to recruit only “gentlemen of private means” as curators, the association published salary guidelines calling for museum officers to receive the same pay as equivalent staff at other public corporations.

Widening participation

In later decades the MA has fought to break down the “old boys’ club” demographic of the sector and make the profession more accessible to women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, through initiatives such as Diversify, which ran from 1998 to 2011, and the 2004 Tomorrow People report on salaries and entry routes in the museum sector.

Although progress has been slow – and hampered in the past few years by funding cuts – the MA’s most recent action plan, Working Wonders (2013), continues that tradition of campaigning for better pay, accessible training and fair representation for all.

Meanwhile, innovations such as the Moving On Up conference, aimed at people at the start of their careers, have given the next generation of employees a more prominent voice in the sector.

Another debate that dominated the early days of the MA was the role museums should play in education. Most members strongly advocated a closer union between museums and schools, calling for grant-in-aid to develop their institutions’ research and educational facilities.

Advocacy and education

The MA’s advocacy led to some significant victories for museums, such as legislation in the Education Act of 1918 permitting local authorities to fund museum visits by schools in England and Wales, and a further bill granting councils the right to transfer museum powers to their education authorities.

The association also helped to disseminate the idea of providing object loans services to schools, and the value of making objects accessible to visually and hearing impaired people.

It was the MA’s partnership with the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, which spanned over 50 years, that helped to further define the purpose of museums – and launch a more official role for the association itself.

In 1925, the trust funded a study into the state of public museums in the UK, particularly the work of local and regional museums. The eventual survey, the Miers Report, reached a number of conclusions that still resonate today.

It emphasised the educational role of the sector and the importance of local museums – and it also advocated that the MA should itself be strengthened to help carry out its recommendations.

And so, in the years that followed, the MA found an office of its own in South Kensington with a paid secretary. It began administering a number of grant schemes on behalf of the Carnegie Trust towards museum development at small institutions, and museum loans services to rural areas.

Grant-in-aid from the trust also funded the aforementioned diploma and other training courses run by the MA, as well as detailed research on museums and galleries overseas in British colonies.

Developing loan policies

The MA began to play an increasing role in promoting regional collaboration through federations and forging links between regional and national museums.

It was particularly active in encouraging loans – lobbying by MA members led to the British Museum Act 1924, which gave trustees of the British Museum the power to loan objects to local museums.

That advocacy has continued to this day, with initiatives such as Smarter Loans (2012), which encourages institutions to prioritise the public benefit of loans over stringent regulations.

The association’s work on collections also went beyond loans. In the 1970s, MA members began to acknowledge the importance IT systems could play in the documentation of collections, and set up an Information Retrieval Group to develop this work.

This later evolved into the Museum Documentation Group and eventually, the Collections Trust. “Museum people were some of the first to recognise the potential for IT,” says Patrick Boylan, who served as the MA president between 1988 and 1990.

Since the millennium, the MA has undertaken extensive research into collections management, outlining its conclusions in the Collections for the Future report (2005) – including the controversial recommendation that museums should in some cases take a more active approach to disposal.

The MA’s follow-up funding schemes, Effective Collections (2007-12) and the current Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, have distributed over 70 grants from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to support ambitious museum projects to rationalise collections and foster better use of objects.

Much of this forward momentum would not have been possible without a regular forum in which the museum sector can exchange ideas – which the MA has provided in the form of Museums Journal since 1901, and latterly through its website.

“The journal has been the main vehicle by which progressive, avant garde museum policy has been presented and promoted over the years,” Boylan says.

This is especially true of the postwar era, which brought with it an explosion in local authority and independent museums alongside the wider social and cultural change of the period.

As time went on, the focus of the sector shifted from traditional collections-oriented curatorship to an emphasis on public benefit and community work.

Believing that this agenda is the only way museums can remain relevant and sustainable, the MA has fought for these ideals to be upheld, even in the face of today’s austerity-led thinking.

Radical ideas

Its current Museums Change Lives initiative, which provides guidance to help mu-seums think more about their impact on people’s lives, continues the association’s long history of promoting radical ideas.

The MA of today is perhaps most transformed in the relationship it has with its members.

“When I started at the MA in the 1980s it was still quite an amateur organisation,” Taylor says. “People felt obliged to join – they paid their contribution for the sake of it but didn’t expect too much customer service in return.”

These days, he says, there’s a little less blind loyalty but a much more equitable dialogue with members – particularly spurred on by the new lines of communication opened up by the internet.

“The web is a huge deal for us,” he says. “It sits perfectly in an organisation that is geographically spread out and it has fundamentally changed our relationship with members. Electronic media will play a much bigger part in what we do in future.”

This has put the MA in a strong position as it celebrates its 125th birthday. “Membership levels and conference attendance are the highest they’ve ever been,” Taylor says.

One thing is certain – the MA will not be moving away from its core purpose to represent the interests of museums of all types, independent of government.

“It is essential that we speak truth to power,” says David Anderson, the MA’s current president. “Many museums are now struggling to survive the most radical cuts we have seen in generations, and members are looking to the MA to represent them at a national level and to offer support on the ground.”

“We’ve had some prickly relations with government agencies on occasion; it can be hard for the MA to both whisper in the government’s ear and shout at it from the sidelines,” Taylor says.

“But we will continue to be an independent voice for all museums and to challenge the sector to keep up the incredible progress it has made.”

Geraldine Kendall is a freelance journalist. This article was informed by previous research by Geoffrey Lewis and Lynne Teather into the history of the MA and Museums Journal

‘The honourable profession of a curator…’

In August 1939, one month before the outbreak of world war two, the MA celebrated its 50th anniversary at a week-long conference. The following is an extract from the presidential address:

“A message of sympathy and encouragement should go out from this Jubilee Conference to museum curators in every part of the world.

The honourable profession of a museum curator is unrivalled in its opportunities of promoting true culture and expanding the vision of a nation.

Myopia is a besetting malady of nine-tenths of the human race: it shackles corporate progress and limits intellectual vitality.

A museum properly equipped and directed and sympathetically administered by persons convinced of its utility has no parallel in providing the remedy.

The man at the wheel of this ship of progress deserves the support of all educated persons and progressive authorities."

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Best in show

Lights at Sunset in Ostia by Tullio Crali, 1930, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London