Museums such as the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum have seen a big rise in volunteer numbers

Cuts fuel loss of expertise at rural museums

Patrick Steel, Issue 111/12, p11, 01.12.2011
Report says expertise is being lost as cuts lead to senior curators leaving
A report on rural museums entitled “Rural Museums: Ten Years On” has found the loss of curatorial expertise as a result of spending cuts has led many collections to be “orphaned”.

The author of the report, Hilary McGowan, said: “I’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg. Like most things that affect collections care, it will be a while before we see the impact [of the cuts].

“In some museums, the corporate memory is non-existent. Small museums have the most to lose from this. We have to ensure that staff are aware of this and that collections are not just locked in the heads of senior curators.”

David Walker, the chairman of the Rural Museums Network (RMN), which commissioned the report, agreed that this was an issue.

But Walker pointed to the RMN’s work on the distributed national collection and the development of the network’s online discussion group, which includes retired curators among its contributors, as examples of ways in which rural museums were working to overcome the loss of expertise.

The report also highlighted a 365% rise in the number of volunteers at rural museums since 2000. The report estimates that volunteers are worth more than £10m to UK museums each year, and asks whether rural museums are the inventors of the Big Society.

“On the one hand, this is worrying because lots of places have fewer staff or are losing staff,” said McGowan. “But on the other hand, it is encouraging because it shows that museums are engaging with the public more.”