The Riverside Museum opened in Glasgow this summer

News analysis: Scotland thinks strategically

Geraldine Kendall, Issue 111/11, p15, 01.11.2011
After two years in preparation, the National Strategy Consultation document has been unveiled
It won’t be long until Scotland joins Wales and Northern Ireland in producing a national museum strategy.

Due to launch in spring 2012, Scotland’s draft strategy is currently up for consultation with the museum community and other interested bodies.

The National Strategy Consultation document is the product of more than two years’ discussion and preparation.

In mid-2009, against a climate of economic upheaval across the UK, the then culture minister Michael Russell invited museums across Scotland to form a thinktank tasked with mapping out the future direction of the sector.

The Museums Think Tank decided that Scotland’s publicly funded museums, in the face of declining resources, needed a strategic framework to bolster the sector’s resilience.

One cabinet reshuffle later, in December 2010, the new culture minister Fiona Hyslop asked Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) to take the lead in formulating a national strategy.

The pros and cons of having a strategy have been much debated, and pitfalls still remain for Scotland.

There is a danger that, with input from numerous national bodies and interested parties, a strategy may become overly compromised or too focused on short-term political targets.

England arguably fell into this trap with its draft strategy, developed by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in 2009. Many felt that, though laudable, its aims were too broad to translate into action. The document disappeared amid government and organisational changeover.

A national strategy also inevitably brings museum policy closer to government, and may not be immune from political interference. This happened in Northern Ireland, when former culture secretary Nelson McCausland tried to insert a cultural rights clause into the nation’s Museums Policy that, among other things, pushed Ulster Museum to represent creationism alongside the theory of evolution.

However, the Scottish sector has largely welcomed the idea of a strategy, saying it would bring a greater clarity of purpose, giving national and non-national museums better opportunities to work together, more tools to show their social and economic impact, greater leverage with funders and added weight in the agendas of related sectors, such as tourism.

The draft document was produced by a steering committee, the Museum Strategy Group, made up of representatives from organisations such as National Museums Scotland and Glasgow Life. The document’s underlying theme is partnership and it says it aims to meet the needs of all sizes and types of museum.

The strategy’s guiding principle is improving public impact and benefit. Themes and objectives touch on predictable concerns: boosting entrepreneurial spirit; investing in knowledge and learning; connecting people and places; and improving services and collections.

But neither the document nor the Museum Strategy Group has escaped criticism.

Tamsin Russell, president of the Scottish Museums Federation, says the draft is positive as a whole, but describes some of its objectives as “old wine in new bottles”, saying it isn’t as innovative or edgy as it should be and fails to make “that next-generation leap”.

She adds that if the steering committee had featured more talented junior staff, it would have been more likely to have challenged orthodox thinking.

By far the biggest concern lies in how the strategy will be implemented. At the same time as running the consultation, MGS is being transformed into the national development body charged with rolling out the strategy and evaluating its progress. It will no longer be a membership organisation, but full details of its new role are yet to be ironed out.

Jane Carmichael, director of collections at NMS, told the Museums Association conference last month that this has led to discussions about the strategy being “mixed in” with debate on how MGS will operate in future, making it harder to get a clear picture. The consultation, she added, is admirable in its scope but unclear about the mechanisms for putting ideas into practice.

Russell agrees, saying it is “equally as important” to be consulted on the implementation process; at present, only a few short paragraphs in the draft document are devoted to planning and delivery.

She also points out that smaller museums will need support, coaching and investment to meet the aims of the strategy, but says there is little evidence of how this would be achieved.

Alongside the Scottish consultation, the MA asked its members for feedback on how it should respond to the draft policy. Responses echoed the Scottish sector’s concerns, and director Mark Taylor has called on MGS to be explicit about its role and how it plans to implement the strategy.

The launch date has been pencilled in for March, and MGS needs be on the statute books as a development body by the spring. The sector will be anxiously watching to see if this short turnaround allows enough time for its concerns to be taken into consideration.

The MGS consultation closes on 8 November

See comment, p17

Strategy timetable*

  • 8 November 2011: online consultation closes
  • March 2012: launch of national strategy
  • April 2012: national roadshow
  • Spring-autumn 2012: MGS undergoes transition into national development body
*some dates are provisional