The Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

Museums Galleries Scotland forced to abandon constitution vote

Rebecca Atkinson, 01.05.2012
Museums raise objections to changes
A vote on the new constitution of Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) was abandoned last week after member museums raised objections to planned changes.

MGS is moving from a membership to a subscription body as part of its new remit as the national development body delivering the Scottish national strategy. But a crucial vote to pass its new constitution was adjourned at its AGM last Friday pending further consultation.

According to those who attended the meeting, members raised several objections to the proposed changes, including tiered subscription rates for different types of organisation.

Concerns were also raised about the new governance structure, which will consist of a board of directors appointed by a nomination panel rather than elected by members. The new constitution doesn’t stipulate a set number of board members who work in museums.

David Gaimster, director of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, attended the meeting and said: “Museums are being asked to sign over a lot of money in subscription fees but with virtually no influence on the way the body will be run. And there is no confidence that the new body will be grounded in the sector or represented by its board.”

Another senior museum professional who attended the AGM but asked not to be named said the new constitution gave MGS scope to work with non-museum heritage organisations – a move she warned ran the risk of diluting its remit and funding.

“Something fairly major will have to be changed in the constitution for the sector to accept it,” she added.

And Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, said that all museums and galleries across the country should be able to directly access the services and support needed to implement the national strategy, something a subscription model might not allow.

In an email sent to disgruntled members following the AGM, Fiona Ballantyne, chairwoman of MGS, said that the issues raised during the meeting’s “lively debate” would be given further consideration.

She added that MGS will provide members with more information on subscription levels and set out an outline process for how its moves forward.

But Gaimster said MGS had a “hard sell” on its hands, as it would have to regain the confidence and support of unhappy members: “It has not spent enough time explaining how the new constitution would work and people are concerned the new development body will be overly corporate and not understand the sector.”


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MA Member
10.05.2012, 18:22
Peter says MGS has produced “a pragmatic proposal for improving the relationship between government and the sector.” But has not MGS (and SMC before it) always been pivotal in the relationship between the Scottish Government and the sector? So, what, exactly, needs to be improved?
The MGS General Meeting on 27 April demonstrated that it is trust and confidence that need to be improved.
By proposing subscription, MGS has shown it is still wedded more to being a service-provider than becoming the National Development Body, and that it doesn’t yet understand how to use the gift of the National Strategy as a strategic development tool. This doesn’t inspire confidence that the strategy – once there is some meat on the bones and we get to implement it - will be done in a way that maximises the benefits to the museums and galleries it is intended to develop.
To win trust you have to show trust. The sector is being expected to vote on important changes to governance and how relationships are managed, without being entrusted with a clear picture of how it will all work out in practice, and in particular, how funding will be channelled to make it happen. The sector asked for clarity on both of these back in the winter, at the consultation events on the National Strategy.
Sorry Peter but Neil is right – this needs to be discussed properly, to build the necessary understanding and relationship of trust that is needed to deliver a strategy in genuine partnership. It is all about confidence and trust in the legitimacy, leadership, knowledge and skill of MGS, not about pragmatism.
Please MGS, respect us museum professionals as grown-up, intelligent, people who want the best for the future of the sector, and want the National Strategy to work. Please share your plans for how you will lead implementation, so people can make an informed decision on what to vote. And give them time to consider what is best, instead of trying to bounce important changes through.

07.05.2012, 23:13
This is all very sad and frustrating. After a unanimous vote at the MGS AGM on 27th April in favour of deferring the proposals, the MGS Chair emailed members to say that she would ‘look forward to further dialogue with you in the coming weeks’. I have therefore been hoping for a genuine but speedy discussion that would improve the proposals and subscription model so that they could be agreed by members. An email on Friday appears to suggest, however, that exactly the same proposals that were withdrawn are to be put to the members again on 22nd May with only two ‘discussion events’ and no consultation.

There are various ways in which such a body can gain legitimacy and show leadership: by representation (such as elections by members to a Board), representativeness (ensuring that the Board reflects the full spread of the sector), expertise (ensuring that the staff have the highest quality knowledge and understanding of the sector), clarity (having unambiguous aims and purpose), accountability (such as reporting to Government and Parliament for the use of public resources) and responsiveness (engaging in full dialogue and consultation with the sector and users).

The proposal is unclear, as the proposed aims go beyond a sole concern for museums (according to the MGS legal advice including ‘forming rowing clubs’), and unrepresentative, as Board members will vaguely be ‘drawn from the museum and cultural sector’ rather than ensuring that a majority will be museum professionals drawn from the full range of types of museum. The loss of expert staff by MGS and the current lack of responsiveness have also undermined the trust that MGS needs to engender if it is to become a national leader. I am keen that we change the constitution to make it appropriate for the future, but showing that the proposals are legal is not the same as showing that they are right.

As Peter Stott says, with the launch of the National Strategy and the support of the Cabinet Secretary, the sector has a wonderful opportunity to work together and with Government to establish a national development body that can make real improvements to museums in Scotland. But. Why was there no consultation on the governance of MGS? Why is there still no sign of the National Strategy implementation plan? What are the proposed relationships between MGS and the National Museums, National Galleries and Creative Scotland? What will the subscription model look like after the transition year? These are real questions, not ‘misapprehensions’. I fear that MGS has taken on too much over the last year – developing the National Strategy, restructuring and losing some of its most experienced and respected staff, moving to new premises and developing a new governance model, all at the same time as continuing its support for museums. It is still not too late for MGS to show leadership and listen to the positive criticisms of its members instead of panicking and trying to force through the wrong proposals. MGS, please listen to your friends; we need to talk!
04.05.2012, 16:13
Anonymous 2/5/12, 9.37 states that MGS should be 'an advocate for the museums sector against government policy". Is this what people in the sector truly believe the role of a sector lead body to be? Having recognised the value of the sector by enabling it to create its own strategic lead body, the Scottish Government is hardly likely then to be convinced if that body exists to work against government policy, and since when did the museums sector enjoy the level of lobbying power to support arrogance of this kind? MGS has produced a pragmatic proposal for improving the relationship between government and the sector, on the one hand in no way dimishing the opportunities for the sector voice to be heard, and on the other improving the chances for that voice to be taken seriously. As a member of MGS Board, I would commend it to the sector, and I would suggest that all those sector representatives on the Museums Think Tank who in 2010 came up with the idea of a non-membership lead body in the first place should do the same.
04.05.2012, 09:07
Commenting from the other side of Offa's Dyke, but there seems to be a systemic problem with national museum organisations to the north and east. Can anyone hand on heart say that Resource, MLA, Museums Galleries Scotland and any other of the various names these organisations have had over the years have really been game changers in the sector and added to the sum of human happiness of our audiences?

Even their partial successes such as Renaissance in the Regions were other people's ideas. Perhaps it's time to examine whether there are better ways for the sector to have a national strategy, if that is what we feel our audiences are crying out for.
03.05.2012, 13:51
The MJ Strategy piece reflected what is genuine support across the sector for having a National Strategy. What no one really wants to say is that it is not yet a Strategy because it as yet has no Delivery Plan. MGS members are disappointed also with the amount of time it took to deliver what we have so far. People want action, they want genuine consultation and they want to be able to give MGS their trust. Lack of action and limited consultation means trust and confidence in MGS is at an all time low.
02.05.2012, 13:03
Good to see that democracy still works! Much of the strategy makes sense and partnerships with the wider heritage sector will be important, none of us can go it alone anymore. But it won't work if the new body doesn't support and help the sector.
Geraldine, Museums Association
MA Member, MJ Subscriber, MP Subscriber
02.05.2012, 10:50
Dear anonymous (09.37),

The news story that appeared in the journal was written in mid-April, well before MGS members raised their concerns at the AGM .

We have updated this twice since then after further objections filtered through to us - in the story above and the following story written a week prior to the AGM:

The headline you quote refers specifically to how the strategy document itself was received - rather than the delivery plan/restructure of MGS, which is obviously the key concern that was raised at the AGM last week.

The people I spoke to were from a variety of different institutions, and were broadly welcoming of the strategy's ambitions but critical of the new direction for MGS, which is exactly what I wrote in the piece.

We will continue to update this story as it develops, please do contact us if you wish to make on or off the record comments for publication.

MA Member
02.05.2012, 10:20
David Gaimster's comment “Museums are being asked to sign over a lot of money in subscription fees but with virtually no influence on the way the body will be run. And there is no confidence that the new body will be grounded in the sector or represented by its board.” could not be more pertinent or true. When an organisation limits the amount of help it gives according to the level of subscription fees paid, it leaves itself open to being labelled elitist at best. MGS already has a dearth of qualified museum professionals within its walls, and to have a self-elected board with no input from members smacks of secrecy, distance from the museums it purports to support and a lack of understanding of the needs of the museum sector in Scotland. Like the previous commentator, I wonder if any museums professional has been properly consulted, and if they have, then no notice whatsoever has been taken of their opinions. The strategy was doomed to fail from the beginning, and no one I know in the sector has a good word to say for it. Think again, and this time take heed. Under no circumstances should such a body be so distant, and any hint of this new body being a government mouthpiece should be fought against with the greatest vigour.
MA Member
02.05.2012, 09:37
The May 2012 issue of the Journal came through the letterbox yesterday. On page 5 is an article headed "Scottish museums back new national strategy". What planet is Geraldine Kendall living on??

It is notable that Geraldine Kendall appears not to have enquired very widely across the museum sector in Scotland to find out what the general opinion is of the direction in which the MGS management (and the Scottish Government) wish to move. I have not spoken to a single local authority curator in Scotland who likes the MGS proposals.

The MGS AGM last Friday saw the membership speak with a united voice -- it does not like the proposals and views them with very deep suspicion.

Over the past few years MGS has moved further and further away from the original ideals of the old Scottish Museums Council. In particular, MGS is no longer providing definitive advice to Scottish museums on issues of concern, preferring instead to act as a collecting house of information. The fear is that the new-style MGS as a national development body will act only as a government mouthpiece, rather than as an advocate for the museum sector against government policy.

We hope that the June issue of the Journal will carry a more accurate and more balanced report of the sector's opinion on the MGS proposals.