Davies: MDOs need clearer strategic purpose

Geraldine Kendall, 18.05.2011
Call for museum development agenda to focus more explicitly on impact and accreditation
Participants in a debate about museum development have highlighted concerns that the agenda lacks an overall strategic purpose.

Organised by the Renaissance London hub, the informal meeting brought together representatives from a range of national museum organisations to talk through museum development and the role of museum development officers (MDOs).

Museums Association (MA) head of policy Maurice Davies, who attended the meeting, said: “There was a really clear conclusion that, although MDOs are well respected and trusted, no one has spelt out in a strategic way what they are trying to achieve.”

MDOs account for approximately £10m of Renaissance funding. Their roles vary greatly from region to region, the group found, covering everything from helping museums to achieve basic standards and providing free consultancy to matters of national strategic importance, such as increasing service delivery and impact.

Davies said the meeting concluded that “it’s fine to have varied ways of providing [museum development], but it should be done to common aims”.

Davies said the MA, in particular, advocated connecting the role of MDOs more explicitly to audience impact.

“The best approach looks like focusing attention on increasing impact and public benefit, and placing more emphasis on the outward-facing elements of MDOs’ work,” he said, adding that because of the lack of clarity about the role of MDOs, they sometimes had a tendency to focus their work more inwardly.

The group also agreed that MDOs should be linked more strategically to accreditation.

According to Davies, attendees went on to discuss how new, self-generated networks were appearing at a local level, with museums supporting each other to improve audience delivery from the bottom up.

Davies said: “There is a sense that a new approach to museum development needs to recognise the benefits of self-help and encourage museums to get to a position where they can do it themselves.”

The discussion included representatives from the MA, the Association of Independent Museums, Arts Council England, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Collections Trust.


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24.05.2011, 17:17
Don't disagree with you Maurice that there needs to be discussion about best use of reduced funds (not forgetting of course that Renaissance has never been the exclusive funder of MDOs), but I wonder whether it's not what is going on which must change, but the way that it is measured and assessed.
There really has never been appropriate PIs for MDO work - so we have constantly battled for understanding. Our GSO results show impact pretty well, there are other measures - cf AIM economic assessment toolkit, to name only one of many.
Renaissance was instrumental in MDO evolution, but you might say they never really fitted the government's management 'style'. So maybe rather than ringing our hands with 'shoulds' and 'oughts' we 'could' re-frame the argument to understand that MDO work is measured best in terms of promoting happiness, well being and sustainable communities - we could be seen as leading the way , not being constantly challenged to justify our existence. Talking is good.
24.05.2011, 15:17
Thanks to decisions made largely by MLA, we risk moving rapidly and in a chaotic way from having arguably too much support for the development of museums to having almost none at all. There is an urgent need to find an appropriate and affordable system to support development. ACE needs to take this task on and, of course MDOs should play a part in the discussion.

The comments below demonstrate the wide variety of work undertaken by MDOs and would seem to confirm the need for some clear thinking about the overall aim of museum development. At a time when money is short priorities have to be set. At the meeting the obvious priorities seem to be helping museums inprove their impact and where necessary supporting the acheivement of accreditation.

Clear overall priorities set nationally (for what is after all largely national funding) should help hard-working and trusted MDOs be clear about the best use of their valuable - but inevitably limited - time and would prevent the increasing local and regional inequality referred to in the comments.

It sounds obvious, but the prime focus of museum development - like all funding for museums - has to be on improving the public benefit and impact of museums, rather than on supporting museums for the sake of it. We shouldn't think of a museum's (internal) needs, but only of the needs of its audiences and potential audiences.

23.05.2011, 09:01
I think this is a really important debate as MDOs are the backbone of a successful museum development strategy. I was London MDO in the 1980s and have seen the role develop over the years. I would like to see the Museums Association, with the Federations, take a lead in defining and advocating for continued support for museum development.
MA Member
20.05.2011, 16:13
MDOs have an enabling role - whether it is to help museums gain Accreditation, undertake a youth project or revamp a gallery. This means that the client museums continue to develop and enrich their communities. Ask any of the 80 or so heritage organisations that our MDO in Somerset works with whether she is 'outward-facing' or not and I think you would get a very short answer.
The forthcoming issue of the SW Federation of Museums & Art Galleries newsletter is featuring the work of the extremely creative and hard working MDOs in our region. If you would like a copy, contact swfed.org.uk@googlemail.com.
20.05.2011, 15:51

Just to clarify for all, neither I nor any of the MDO team that I manage down here in London were invited or involved in this meeting
MA Member
20.05.2011, 09:33
I wouldn't dispute that the overall strategic direction of museum development should be reviewed, but MDOs need to be included in this discussion. Most MDOs are already working at a strategic level - with local authorities, cultural leads, tourism bodies, funders etc etc. Yes accreditation is important but it is not the only thing we do and far more time is spent on strategic development that one to one advice over accreditation to individual museums. Far more worrying to me is the great disparity in support that exists between regions because the funding settlement has been based on the number of already accredited museums. I would argue that areas with fewer accredited museums need MORE support, not less, in order to bring them up to standard. In the East Midlands the museum development team is about to be reduced by 50%. I am being made redundant as MDO for Lincolnshire in a few weeks meaning that the remaining team will cover two counties each. Lincolnshire on its own is the same size as Northern Ireland. There are over 60 museums. But the museums and more importantly the communities they serve are being discriminated against because they happen to live in a county that already suffers from rural exclusion and isolation so has museums that require a lot of support. In large parts of the county there is no cultural provision other than a volunteer-run museum that with the help of an MDO and other support could in time develop into a real cultural asset (and in fact many already are). Instead are we saying rural communities must drive over 50 miles to access culture? How is that fair? The public makes no distinction between museums: they are all museums to them whether the V&A or a small volunteer-run organisations. It does our sector a dis-service if we do not inlude them all and only focus attention on those who have already developed to a position where they are able to help themselves.
19.05.2011, 15:33
A top-down, "one size fits all" strategy would be a negative and backward step. Museums are incredibly diverse, and the needs of individual institutions and different regions vary immensely. The response has to be tailored to that need, not to some central concept of a strategy. If all those people sat in a room and didn't tell ACE this, then I'm more than a little concerned.

It's true that we should make sure the MDOs are "singing from the same hymn sheet", and that things like accreditation are incorporated in their work (is there a region where this isn't the case?). But beyond that the strategy needs to be developed within the region.

I'd suggest that ACE, the MA, the MLA, and the Collections Trust should all send senior figures to the MDO conference as Glynis suggests. That way, they can get on-the-ground feedback from those actually doing the development work in the regions.
19.05.2011, 15:12
As an MDO I'm increasingly worried that there's a lot of talk about what MDOs do, how little ACE know about museum development work, but very rarely are we actually asked.

The Accreditation scheme is one of our best tools for museum development, it's the reason many MDO posts were created in the first place and we advise on every area of the standard, and more! To say we need to be tied in more directly with Accreditation seems to suggest we're not already!

Perhaps Glynis is right, we need to spend less time doing the job and more time talking about it!
MA Member
18.05.2011, 20:54
Any MDOs at this meeting, or were you talking 'about us' rather than 'to us'? If you want to know about our strategic direction as MDOs you only have to ask and we'll tell you.
18.05.2011, 18:35
Great that some folks in London are part of the conversation, maybe some of you guys will be able to continue it at our national gathering of MDOs in Cambridge on 15th June. http://mdn2011.eventbrite.com/
Am always confused by the assumptions made about MDO work: local level networks, developing audience focussed museums and growing sustainable management is already core work for the MDOs I know. We do tend to spend out time making development happen rather than reporting on it...maybe thats our mistake?!