Neil MacGregor retired last year after 13 years as director of the British Museum

MacGregor warns of erosion of curatorial strength in regions

Geraldine Kendall, 11.05.2016
Former BM chief says loss of expertise poses danger to local museums
The erosion of curatorial strength in museums outside London is becoming “a very serious issue”, the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has warned.

MacGregor, who is now retired and acting as advisor to a number of international institutions, gave evidence to a select committee hearing last week as part of the ongoing Countries of Culture Inquiry, which is examining the landscape of cultural provision across the UK.

He told the committee that the financial constraints on local authorities meant that curators were not being recruited because they “rarely generate revenue” in a way that can be easily quantified.

“The result has understandably been a steady erosion of curatorial strength,” he said.

This loss of specialist knowledge is making it difficult for some museums to borrow from other institutions or use their own collections effectively, said MacGregor.

“It is very hard for those collections outside London to be intelligent borrowers, because the curator needs to know what would be useful to borrow and useful to use; but perhaps even more significantly, it makes it impossible for the local museum to use its own resource properly.”

The loss of expertise is a “particular danger” among museums that have moved to trust status, said MacGregor.
 
“The financial pressures are sometimes greater for trusts without a local authority to underpin or stand behind them […] I think it is a risk in some places, particularly where there is an opportunity for the collection to be seen essentially as a visitor experience, so the generation of income becomes a very important side.”
 
MacGregor said the national museums had a crucial role to play in enabling small collections to access scholarship and knowledge through their specialist networks.

But he also warned that the consequences of devolution had not yet been properly addressed, saying that the dearth of UK-wide sources of public funding for museums – with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council being the only two – was making it difficult for national collections to fulfil their obligations to the devolved nations.
 
He said that devolved administrations were prioritising cultural initiatives that “focused in and on the home country” rather than taking into account the shared cultural inheritance of the UK.

MacGregor praised the Major Partner Museum model of investing in regional hubs that could then share knowledge and resources with smaller institutions. He suggested setting up a UK-wide fund that would enable smaller museums and galleries across Britain to access the “concentration of expertise and skill and collections” held in national museums and capital cities like Edinburgh and London. “That would be a huge energiser,” he said.

The Countries of Culture Inquiry will continue to hear evidence from culture, museum and heritage representatives throughout the month. Its findings are due later this year.

The Museums Association will examine the impact that the loss of curatorial expertise is having on museums at an upcoming event, Take Good Care: Looking After Your Collection, which takes place on 6 July at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.  

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