Good housekeeping for these dismal days - Museums Association

Good housekeeping for these dismal days

According to the Chinese proverb, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and some build windmills”. The …
Almut Grüner
According to the Chinese proverb, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and some build windmills”.

The winds are blowing hard these days. Cost-cutting and making savings seem to be the new dirty phrases, but on reflection, maybe this isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Who would not like to have savings in the bank? Who would not like to see the government wasting less money?

I would like to see both. If cuts in public spending mean that the state is wasting fewer of its resources, this has to be a good thing. We cannot expect the government to solve the financial troubles we’re in and refuse to make a contribution. Not spending the money you don’t have is called realism.

As the chief executive of the Thackray Museum, I am responsible for not spending money we don’t have. The Thackray is an independent museum – we receive no public funding, except Gift Aid.

My colleagues from local authorities often see this as a limitation to what we can do. It is true that independent museums tend to pay lower wages and have to constantly think about money.

We, too, are affected by the recession. Our main income source, room hire, will be severely hit this year. We expect 20 per cent less conference income than last year, and 2009 was not a particularly good year in the first place. There is nowhere to go to complain. We just have get on with it.

To be honest, I don’t think that constantly thinking about money is a bad thing. We simply cannot afford not to – it helps us focus on spending our money where it has the most impact: public services.

Rather than cutting down our team, we have just recruited two new members of staff. This is a long-term investment in the museum’s ability to stay innovative, competitive and to attract audiences through learning programmes and exhibitions.

I am not saying that it is going to be easy but we can pull up our sleeves and do something about it. Success is like trying to go up on a down escalator. If you want to stay at the same level, you have to move at the same speed as the escalator. If you want to go up, you have to be faster.

So what can smaller museums do to keep up with the economic escalator?

My advice is to be proactive and do more of the things you do well. Build on your successes and on the goodwill for your museum. Don’t wait for others to help you. Seek partnerships and shout loud about your successes.

Make the most of your assets. Review your operations. You can make savings without compromising on quality or service level. Scour those dusty cupboards for things to sell. (We found telephones, a photocopier and projector light bulbs, and are selling car-parking permits to non-museum users.)

Don’t cut learning or education activities: they are your investment in the future.

Use the creativity of staff and volunteers. Two of my colleagues designed new merchandise for our shop that reflects the medical collections of the Thackray Museum.

My request from national museums and the Renaissance hubs would be to open up and share their knowledge.

We’d be more than happy to do the same. I see short-term secondments or exchanges as a way to develop staff at relatively low direct cost. Both sides will gain from such cooperation, as we have seen in a collaborative project between the Thackray and Leeds Museums

Most important of all, don’t stand still. Keep going. At the Thackray Museum, we’re going to build windmills.

Almut Grüner is the chief executive of the Thackray Museum, Leeds

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