Making the Grade? - Museums Association

Making the Grade?

Virginia Tandy, the new president of the Museums Association, tells Museums Journal what challenges she thinks the next few years will hold.
Virginia Tandy
My first contact with the Museums Association (MA) was as a teenager. I was inspired by my regular trips to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and I wrote to ask about careers in museums. I received a closely typed information sheet with some pretty daunting descriptions of the qualifications required to be a curator, and I wondered if I would ever make the grade.

Having followed a rather unconventional and circuitous career path to become the director of Manchester City Galleries, I am delighted and honoured to have been elected the president of the MA.

My feeling is that the past ten years have been positive for many museums and galleries. The lottery has funded huge numbers of capital developments, major projects and acquisitions. The Museums, Libraries and Archive Council's Renaissance in the Regions programme has made a major impact in England. Free entry has resulted in significant increases in visitors to national museums, and strategic commissioning has brought some of the nationals and regionals closer together.

University museums have seen their funding channelled through the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and research analogue status has been achieved by a number of national museums. In Scotland, the Scottish Museums Council has maintained its independence as a separate funding body, and we are still awaiting the outcome of the cultural review in Wales.

The MA's Collections for the Future report has set a challenging agenda for the sector, and other initiatives such as the Contemporary Arts Society's Special Collection Scheme, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the Goodison Review have had an impact on the approach to acquiring works for collections.

This year has seen the launch of two important reports: Turning Point, the contemporary visual arts strategy from Arts Council England, and the finalisation of Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st-Century Life, led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

So what should the Museums Association's focus be for the next two years? There are three key issues: making the case for sustaining and developing investment; taking forward the recommendations for Collections for the Future; and exploring new ways of supporting and developing the people who work in museums at all levels.

We should not underestimate the challenges ahead regarding the Comprehensive Spending Review. As is always the case, there are early pronouncements that it will be a tough round. We need to use all our evidence of social impact and improved performance, and all our powers of persuasion to at least sustain the progress we have made, and at best secure the new funding we need.

John Holden, from the thinktank Demos, has developed a concept of a triangle of cultural values - instrumental, intrinsic and institutional. This has helped us understand the context we are working in. Over the past few years, there has been a real emphasis on the instrumental agenda, which proves our public value to politicians, and we have been very successful in demonstrating this. However, many of our visitors are motivated by the intrinsic value of museums and galleries, and believe that our trusted public institutions are a good thing in themselves.

Collections for the Future challenges us to use these fantastic resources in exciting and innovative ways, through better knowledge, understanding and stewardship of what we hold. The Effective Collections programme, which is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, aims to make better use of stored collections by enabling long loans of material and encouraging a more active approach to disposal.

A review of the MA's guidelines on disposal is underway and the disposal toolkit that will result from the review aims to clarify the process of removing objects from museum collections. John Holden's final value is institutional value. What does our behaviour as individual staff members or as institutions say about our commitment to inclusivity?

How are visitors received when they arrive? How representative are our organisations and workforce of the people we serve?

Maurice Davies, the deputy director of the MA, has been researching entry into the workforce. His overall conclusions are that there are plenty of competent people who want to work in museums, but they come from a narrow range of backgrounds, and once in post they are not developed.

If museums are serious about the need to diversify the workforce, they will have to intervene to broaden the range of people wanting to train. Support is also needed to ensure that people who have chosen museums as a career are given the support to progress. For example, even now, with many women in the sector's workforce, they are still under-represented at the most senior levels.

In 2007, the Museums Association will take the findings of the research and draw up an action plan. I genuinely welcome this initiative on entry into the profession. My aspiration is that in future a wider range of people will write in to the MA, or go to the website for careers advice, and feel that they can make the grade and make their contribution to caring for our heritage, celebrating today's culture, and building the collections for this and future generations to learn from and enjoy.

Virginia Tandy is the director of Manchester City Galleries

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