Weston Park Museum, part of the Museums Sheffield group

Civic museums must reform collection policies, report says

Rob Picheta, 10.07.2017
Study urges changes in wake of funding cuts
Civic museums must reform their collection policies and become more grounded in their communities in order to tackle an “immediate funding crisis”, according to a report by the English Civic Museums Network (ECMN).

The Future of Civic Museums: A Think Piece calls for a “new enlightenment” to strengthen civic museums. It calls for organisations to work harder to make collections relevant to local people, and to attract visitors from more varied socio-economic backgrounds.

The paper was authored by Peter Latchford, the chief executive of public service advisory firm Black Radley. It says: “Society needs civic museums to find themselves again in their role as reform catalysts for a new enlightenment.”

In order to survive, the paper adds, civic museums “must see themselves as part of the wider ecology that surrounds them, building a sense of place, rather than caring for collections in splendid isolation”.

Latchford also suggests that some within the sector view collections as more important than visitors, adding: “This perspective ignores the subtle truth of the civic museum proposition: that the collection may give the museum its authenticity and legitimacy, but the community gives it its purpose.”

The report also highlighted the funding challenges faced by civic museums, which it says are more stark than those faced by the museum sector in general.

Funding for civic museums has decreased by an average of 30% over the past five years, it says, compared to a 13% reduction in funding across the entire museums sector identified in last year’s Mendoza Review.

It outlined the challenges ECMN members face in being constrained by local authorities, which typically provide 75% of their funds but which “rarely offer the freedom of governance to develop the more agile, entrepreneurial models that will be necessary for survival”.

But the study also urged civic museums to do more to compete for the UK’s relatively high household spend on cultural services, and suggests those that are free to enter should consider introducing admission fees.

Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA), said: "It’s unsurprising that this report comes to many of the same conclusions as the Museum Taskforce, which published its recommendations earlier this year. The taskforce also said that museums need to be more relevant and connected to their communities, that they have to sort out their collections and that funding is a critical issue.

"It’s good to see that this report highlights many of the same issues and focuses on the special role that civic museums play in bringing their communities together and creating a sense of place.
 
“I would however be cautious of some of the 'post-public-museum' ideology and recommendations that the author has included in this provocation.

"It is interesting to note that the report calls for the sector to 'take on the collections myth' although it falls short of saying how this might be done. One myth that seems to prevail is that the Code of Ethics focuses solely on not selling from collections. In fact the code hinges on three core ethical commitments: public benefit, collections stewardship, and individual and institutional integrity.

"It is the balance of these three principles that can support active and dynamic collections management and the MA is committed to supporting a truly radical approach to collections through its current Collections 2030 research.
 
"It is also interesting to note that the report calls for a rethinking of the employment model and tackling 'inflexible staff terms and conditions'. While it would of course be good for museums to have the flexibility to recruit a diverse workforce with the appropriate skills, undermining current terms and conditions which are currently worse than those of comparable professions is not the answer.

"The MA supports a 'whole workforce' approach and the breaking down of barriers between front of house, volunteers and other staff so that everyone who works in and with museums can play a part in building a sustainable future for the sector.”

The report is the first public outcome of the ECMN, which was formed in 2015 and represents over 40 museum organisations. It was funded by the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC).

Iain Watson, the director of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and vice-chair of the NMDC, said: “Peter Latchford's report provides challenges to museums and their funders. It highlights some uncomfortable truths and suggests how we can adapt to meet the changing needs of society.”

Update
10.07.2018

Updated to include a comment from the MA's director Sharon Heal.

Comments

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12.07.2018, 22:49
He seems to argue two things for collections in 'civic museums'. First, sell things that don't tell a local story. That sounds very parochial to me. Should Manchester Art Gallery (where I once worked) sell off its Stubbs, Turners and Italian paintings? Second, he suggests museums act like an art dealer and speculate in contemporary art. (Presumably a bit like Charles Saatchi, although I can never work out whether Saatchi mainly sells things that have risen on value or actually ones that have gone out of fashion) Setting aside the ethics, that sounds financially very risky to me. I don't see the low risk aversion and long-term cautious governance and missions of museums being at all compatible with art dealing. Odd report altogether and given all its demands for evidence, it includes rather too many unevidenced assertions.
Rachel Conroy
Curator - Temple Newsam, Leeds Museums and Galleries
12.07.2018, 13:05
This is a document I’ll need to digest and sit with for a while. There are some provocative points and some sit more easily with me than others. The concept of ‘show and sell’ is ethically regressive and potentially a major conflict of personal and institutional interest. I agree with the poster below re. locally focussed collecting policies surely already being commonplace. However, the degree to which specific locality will influence what is collected should depend on the context of the museum and the strengths within its collection, which might mean collecting naturally takes on a local, regional and/or national focus.
Anonymous
12.07.2018, 10:27
I'm wondering which civic museums the people who've compiled this report have actually visited. How many museums now put collections before visitors? Or have collecting policies which don't focus strongly on their locality? Which museums are they thinking about?

And also, which museums actually have acquisition budgets? Most will have none at all and thus have to fundraise every penny from outside sources, in which case every object they buy will have to be pretty damn relevant in every way possible. Otherwise the funding bodies won't fund them , nor should they, and it won't be worth the increasingly harassed and overworked staffs' time trying to fundraise in the first place. They will have considered every aspect of the acquisition before they go for it.

And, oddly enough, in my experience visitors do actually seem to like new acquisitions now and again. They don't happen often in regional museums but they are one means of bringing freshness and change into a permanent gallery. New learning programmes can be designed, and events, aimed at all sections of the audience. These are important and cheering in a gloomy and austere climate.