Photograph by Phil Sayer

Councils urged to give museums more freedom online

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 19.10.2016
Culture minister raises issue after conversations with MA
The culture and digital minister for England, Matthew Hancock, has urged local authorities to give the museums they run greater independence over their digital communications.

Speaking at the What Next? conference in Manchester earlier this week, Hancock described how his department had cut the rules and regulations for its sponsored institutions, enabling them to operate as “independent businesses, free from central control and able to deliver some real innovations in online marketing and audience engagement”.

“I’d encourage local authorities who still keep things centralised to follow that lead,” he said.

The minister raised the issue after having conversations with the Museums Association (MA) about some of the barriers faced by local authority museums in the digital arena.

In a briefing given to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the MA called for a “concerted effort for museums to achieve digital independence”.

The MA said the limited digital accessibility of some museums meant that they were “failing to reach their potential and ill-equipped for a world in which digital access to collections and museum activities is increasingly the norm”.

The briefing outlined examples of poor digital practice among some councils, such as inflexible procurement rules and a risk-averse communications strategy.

It highlighted how web pages for local authority museums were often embedded within complex council websites, and hampered by poor design and user interfaces.

Museums also faced difficulties engaging with people online, according to the briefing, with one museum reporting that it was only allowed to send out three tweets a week, and another obliged to have all of its tweets vetted by the council’s marketing department.

The MA would like to see the government do more to challenge local authorities to free up their museums, as well as providing councils with examples of good online practice and establishing a challenge fund to encourage a change in culture, said the association’s policy officer Alistair Brown.

“Given that Hancock has signalled his intention to bring the digital agenda into museums, the MA believes that, before this can happen, it is important that a lot of museums get more freedom over their own digital platforms and communications,” said Brown.

“I think it’s absolutely shocking that quite a number of local authorities bury their museums on an obscure page of the council website and don’t give them the freedom to tweet and engage with audiences online.

“There’s no change in legislation needed to fix this – it’s a matter of changing the rules and regulations and the culture of risk aversion within those organisations. Having got this issue onto the minister’s agenda, we’d like to see some real action coming out of it and more leadership from the minister going forward.”

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