Cordelia's Portion, Ford Madox Bown (c) Southampton City Art Gallery

Loans can benefit all parties

Caroline Parry, Issue 119/04, 01.04.2019
Regional museums borrowing objects from national collections leads to a sharing of knowledge and skills on both sides, as well as boosting attendances. By Caroline Parry
Borrowing from national collections has many benefits for regional museums, from boosting visitor numbers to helping staff to develop confidence and skills, but the loans process must be seen as more than a one-way street.

Loaning objects, artefacts and artworks not only helps national museums to fulfil their remits to share collections as widely as possible, but the process often leads to longer-term partnerships between venues that result in the sharing of knowledge and skills, and often, further loans.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) loaned objects to the highest number of museums in 2017-18, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s (DCMS) annual performance indicator for sponsored museums and galleries. The V&A loaned to 241 UK venues over the year, while Tate loaned the most works, at 1,510.

Julia Brettell, the national programmes manager at the V&A, says it is vital that the loans process is regarded as a partnership. “Loaning objects supports our remit as a national museum of getting the collection out there, but it also helps our curators to learn what is going on elsewhere,” she says. “There is a knowledge exchange that works back and forth.”

It is a benefit that is also noted by Penny Bull, the senior programmes manager at the Art Fund, which created the Weston Loan Programme with the Garfield Weston Foundation in 2018. “We had not anticipated the relationships that have built up between national and regional curators,” she says. “It has helped to increase skills and confidence.”

While the V&A does not charge museums for borrowing objects, it does require them to cover all of the direct costs. At present, the Weston Loan Programme is the only scheme that directly provides funds to regional and smaller museums to enable them to borrow. Grants range from £1,000 to £25,000 to cover the practical costs of loans, such as transportation, conservation and installation, as well as for marketing and audience development.

Philippa Charles, the director of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said; “Our partnership with Art Fund helps empower and reward the ambition of UK museums, enables people to see works of art and objects usually hundreds of miles away, and gives national museums more opportunities to share their expertise and collections.”

The scheme has helped participating venues to achieve significant increases in visitor numbers. Rugby Museum and Art Gallery, which loaned several works from the National Portrait Gallery, London, for its About Face exhibition last spring, enjoyed a 70% year-on-year rise in visitors. It was the first exhibition to be supported by the programme.

Meanwhile, Manor House Museum in Kettering enjoyed a 100% increase in monthly visitors compared with the previous year when it borrowed several objects from London’s British Museum last autumn. The loan comprised iron age and early Anglo-Saxon objects that were found in the area.

According to Bull, the programme enables the regional museums involved to offer visitors the chance to see something different. It also raises the profile of a venue and its permanent collection, creates the opportunity to gather fresh visitor feedback and, crucially, can entice new audiences to visit.

This is highlighted by Barnsley’s Cannon Hall Museum, Park & Gardens, which borrowed Rembrandt’s An Elderly Man as Saint Paul from the National Gallery for its exhibition, A Dutch Golden Age: Painters, Places and People in the 17th Century. Four in 10 of the visitors to the exhibition, which ran from June to September 2018, had not been to the museum before.

The Mendoza Review of museums in England, published in 2017, called for national museums to better support the wider sector by sharing collections and expertise. And regional museums clearly have an appetite to borrow, with the Weston Loan Programme significantly oversubscribed. Arts Council England’s Ready to Borrow scheme, which has already closed, was also oversubscribed.

But with the Weston Loan Programme heading into its final round, what funding support will be available in the long run is unclear. For now, Bull says, it remains focused on delivering the third round, before looking closely at the programme and the evaluation.

“Whatever happens next, we are embedding practices and building on relationships created by the funding already allocated,” she says.