Museums are great at adapting to change, particularly when the future looks uncertain. People who work in them are passionate about their work, striving to achieve and maintain the best standards in their institutions. This is particularly evident in small museums.
But how do you define a small museum? It’s relative, as they come in many shapes and sizes – it could mean the size of the building, workforce or collection. Arts Council England quantifies a small museum by the number of staff, but also the size of its annual budget and how it is governed.
I work in a small local authority museum in a thriving coastal town. We are able to host ambitious visitor-focused exhibitions with quality pieces, borrowing from museum collections across the country.
But this would not be possible without the help of funding achieved by being a consortium member of Cornwall Museums Partnership, which is a National Portfolio Organisation. The added value this funding provides is integral to our audience engagement, allowing us to bring objects of local importance back to Cornwall.
Earnings in Cornwall have remained below the national average, despite a thriving tourism sector. As a result, many residents can’t afford to travel outside the county for culture. So it is important to give them the chance to see objects of national and international quality and significance in Cornwall – an experience that can enhance their lives.
For museums that want to create exhibitions, having to negotiate with larger museums and incurring the expense can be a barrier to their ambitions. I have witnessed first hand the amount of time and stress that occurs when adhering to guidelines set out by larger lending institutions, particularly national museums.
It is encouraging to see programmes that recognise the difficulties smaller and volunteer-run museums face when borrowing from larger institutions. The Touring Exhibitions Group’s Preparing to Borrow Programme, which was supported by the arts council’s Museum Resilience Fund in 2016-17 and the Art Fund in 2017-19, provides help for smaller museums seeking to work in partnership with larger ones.
Loan-focused funding has also become available through the Art Fund’s Weston Loan Programme. Despite poor rates of pay or voluntary status, staff working in small museums are invested in their roles and willing to work hard to improve venues, often with little budget.
Combining this tenacity with an increased support from larger organisations can have a demonstrable effect on regional museums and their programmes, and our cultural offer as a whole.
Natalie Rigby is responsible for curation and collections at Falmouth Art Gallery
The article originally stated that the Preparing to Borrow programme was funded by Arts Council England. Although the arts council funded the programme in 2016-17, it is currently supported by the Art Fund. This has been corrected.