Great North Museum: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums manages nine galleries and museums across five local authorities

Museums are wising up to share option

Simon Stephens, Issue 116/03, p6, 01.03.2016
Are the challenges of running a museum service work across local authorities outweighed by pluses?
As councils look for ways to make diminishing resources stretch further, sharing local government services has become a growing trend.

This is having an impact on local authority-funded museums, where there are a number of examples of services working across different local councils.

The 2007 merger of Colchester and Ipswich museum services, combing six venues, is one example.

“The increased size of the combined service gives additional profile, capacity, reach and impact,” says Bill Seaman, the museums, arts and culture manager for Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service. “There are clearly benefits to joint working, but it requires an alignment of interests in each partner to work successfully.”

In Kent, Jo Wiltcher is the shared museum services manager for Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone. Each borough council has one museum and Wiltcher has been managing both of them, but this will end on 1 April.

“It is not feasible to be a shared service manager and to manage a £12m redevelopment project,” says Wiltcher, who is about to start work on the development of a heritage, learning and cultural hub that will include a redeveloped Tunbridge Wells Museum. “But it has been interesting, and if both services were redeveloped and running quite happily, it could be an option because the expensive cost of management is shared.

“I suppose the interesting thing about Tunbridge Wells is that our redevelopment is all about shared services, but not with museums. We are bringing together a museum, libraries, tourist information, adult education and our gateway services [a place where residents can access a number of council services].”

The £12m redevelopment is a partnership between Tunbridge Wells and Kent County Council. Tunbridge Wells already shares several services, such as revenues, benefits and environmental health, with Maidstone District Council and Swale District Council through the Mid-Kent Partnership.

The museum arrangement in Kent involves only two venues and two local authorities, but there are examples of broader services.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam) manages nine museums and galleries across five local authorities. This arrangement has been in place since the abolition of the Tyne and Wear Metropolitan County Council in 1986.

Economies of scale

“The fundamental advantage is the economies of scale,” says Iain Watson, the director of Twam. “You can punch above your weight. One of the words that comes up is clout –
we are a significant body in the region.”

The benefits of critical mass apply to Norfolk Museums Service (NMS) too, which also works across several authorities. The arrangement began in 1974 and is different from Twam’s in that there are eight local authorities involved, but also Norfolk County Council, which covers the whole region.

“The arrangement works well in Norfolk and it could in other parts of the country too, if the will is there,” says Steve Miller, the chief executive at NMS. “We have critical mass in terms of visitor numbers and specialist staff.”

Both Twam and NMS are large enough to be Major Partner Museums, so they receive regular Arts Council England funding.

John Orna-Ornstein, the director of museums at the arts council, can see the benefits of sharing museum services across different local authorities, in terms of cost savings and critical mass. But the interesting question, he says, is whether there is the potential for other local authorities to step beyond existing administrative boundaries and develop shared museum services. He suggests that devolution in England might be one of the drivers for this.

Creating challenges

However it occurs, making a museum service function across several local authorities has its challenges, some of which are the same in the wider move to share other services.

How can a partnership be governed so that each council maintains its influence? How should costs and savings be allocated, especially if councils want different things from the same service? And, for some services, is it worth the effort when the savings are comparatively small? These are just a few of the questions that local authorities should consider when looking at developing shared services. Benefits do exist, despite some obstacles.