Response: Understanding the Future, Priorities for England's Museums

January 2007
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Understanding the Future, Priorities for England's Museums

Response from the Museums Association

1.0 Introduction

1.1 The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 5,000 individual members and 600 institutional members.

These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums. Formed in 1889, it is a charity, receiving no regular government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society.

1.2 The MA welcomed the opportunity to be part of the discussions that led to the publication of this paper. We are pleased that several sections of the paper, notably that dealing with collections, reflect our own policy agenda closely. We are very keen to continue contributing to the process as it moves to the next stage, and to advise and support MLA when responsibility is handed to them.

1.3 We are pleased that DCMS has taken the initiative to try to build consensus and agree priorities in this way. We particularly welcome the way that DCMS has attempted to take an overview of the whole sector and has included independent museums, the National Trust and university museums in its discussions.

1.4 However, we are disappointed that the document lacks any really energising vision for the sector. Its inclusiveness is a strength, but also a weakness, in the absence of clear and visionary leadership from DCMS. The document contains nothing we disagree with, but is rather over-cautious and bland. If the action plan is really to deliver change in the sector, it will need a much clearer vision and greater momentum, to ensure that the sector does not become disillusioned by the whole process.

1.5 We understand that DCMS is asking MLA to produce this action plan. MLA currently does not have strategic responsibility for the whole sector. While work on this action plan is an opportunity for MLA to increase its authority and strategic reach, it will need support from others in the sector to get to that stage.

We should like to see a small steering group set up to advise MLA on its work in developing the action plan, including representatives from NMDC, AIM, UMG and the MA, as well as DCMS. It is vital that DCMS continues to play a role in shaping and delivering the action plan; we are not yet sufficiently far advanced in the process for the Department to let go of responsibility for it.

Without undermining its arms length approach, DCMS should be able to develop measures to encourage change in the sector, in line with the action plans recommendations, such as peer reviews and target-setting for funded bodies.

1.6 It is apparent from our discussions with colleagues across the sector that there is a feeling of weariness and disillusionment in the air, and in particular a scepticism about new initiatives that seem to promise much but end up generating a lot of work in the short term for limited long-term benefit. This is clearly something that MLA needs to be aware of in developing the action plan. The action plan has to be about reshaping the sector for the long term, not about short-term initiatives.

The MA believes that questions around the long-term sustainability of museums are the current big challenge for the sector and we will be addressing this issue in our own work over the next eighteen months. We hope that the action plan will reflect this thinking and do all it can to promote the sustainability of museums.

1.7 We believe that, if the action plan is really to galvanise the sector into action and capture the imagination, it will need some big ideas or concrete proposals for specific changes to working practice that go further than the rather vague and predictable recommendations in the current document. It will also need more tangible targets and goals.

In this response, we begin with a few comments on specific points raised in the document; we then make some broad general points about the approach of this document and the action plan and finally turn to suggestions for big ideas to energise the action plan. In keeping with our thinking on sustainability, it is not intended that these are ideas for short-term projects but rather new approaches to museums' work that will broaden their reach and improve their impact.

2.0 Comments on specific points in the document

2.1 p.8-9 - more connection between museums and schools. We agree that this remains a priority. DCMS needs to engage more effectively with DfES to achieve this. The long overdue joint DCMS/DfES museum education strategy must be prioritised, under the broad umbrella of the DfES Learning Outside the Classroom manifesto.

2.2 However, although school children remain a priority for museum education, we believe that DCMS has tended to over-emphasise the school audience in its targets and policies in recent years. We hope the action plan will counter-balance this over-emphasis.

2.3 In general, we should like to see the action plan embrace the philosophy that the aim of museum education activities should be to provide opportunities for people to engage more fully with the collections and knowledge that are at the heart of museums. While museums do have the potential to contribute to a broad range of learning opportunities, their education work needs to be driven by this aim. This should also ensure that education is absolutely core to the work of a museum, not an optional extra with second-class status.

2.4 p.9-10 - we very much support the suggestion that there should be stronger links between museums and further and higher education. We think emphasis needs to be placed on this in the action plan. The research councils should be key external partners for museums, and the action plan needs to find ways to nurture and strengthen these relationships.

Understanding the Future notes that several national museums have been granted academic analogue status. (It is worth noting that this phrasing has now been superseded and that the museums concerned are now properly known as "Independent Research Organisations" eligible to receive research council funding.)

It is not clear from Understanding the Future that different national museums have this status with a number of different research councils, not just with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The British Museum is recognised as an Independent Research Organisation by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as well as by AHRC and the Natural History Museum is recognised by a total of 5 different research councils. In developing the action plan DCMS and MLA need to be aware that museums' research activities extend considerably beyond the arts and humanities field.

2.5 p.9 University museums are of course, as Understanding the Future notes, uniquely well placed to develop links with higher education, to promote collaborative research projects and to act as trail blazers in these fields for the rest of the sector.

The uncertainty over the future of university museums' funding is then particularly regrettable, given the growing recognition of the importance of links between museums and further and higher education. We urge DCMS to take this issue seriously and to seek to exert its influence with HEFCE.

2.6 p.16 - funding for acquisitions. We welcome the document's conclusion that Government has more to do in addressing the problem of funding for acquisitions. We believe that more financial support from Government, including additional tax incentives, must be part of the solution. We hope that the Government will give serious consideration to new income tax-based incentives, since these will reach more potential donors than inheritance tax-based incentives.

2.7 p.19 - volunteers. While it is positive that the document recognises the importance of volunteers in museums, it is an omission that it does not acknowledge explicitly that volunteers often have particular technical and professional skills and specialised subject knowledge. Museums could do much more to harness the full range of their volunteers' skills and the workforce element of the action plan should make this a priority.

2.8 p.20-21 -workforce diversity. We welcome the fact that the document recognises workforce diversity as a key issue. However, we believe that one of the most important things needed is greater commitment by national museums and we urge DCMS to work with the national museums to ensure this is achieved and to set appropriate targets. We make further points about workforce issues in section 4.

2.9 p.25 -Renaissance in the Regions. We are pleased that the document gives a clear endorsement to Renaissance in the Regions. The Renaissance programme has made the greatest difference to the experience of users of regional museums in a generation. The MA hopes that this endorsement is reflected in spending priorities after the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

A strong and developing Renaissance programme must be the cornerstone of the Understanding the Future action plan. If funding to the Renaissance programme were to be cut, it would negate any other positive outcomes of the Understanding the Future initiative. Renaissance must remain a top priority for spending.

2.10 Of course, this consultation also comes at a time when the CSR is giving rise to anxiety about future funding levels for the national museums and when there is great concern about the impact of the 2012 Olympics on Heritage Lottery funding for museums.

All the considerable benefits that museum users have seen over the last ten years could be undermined by cuts to these funding streams at this stage. It would be a terrible waste if the opportunity presented by the Understanding the Future process were compromised by funding cuts just at the moment when the sector is trying to think seriously about its longer term future.

3.0 General Points

3.1 It seems odd that the document makes only passing reference to Lottery funding for museums, given that funding from the Lottery and from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in particular has reshaped the museum landscape in recent years and will continue to be crucial to museums' work over the over the period that will be covered by the action plan. We hope that DCMS and in particular MLA will engage more effectively with HLF as the action plan is developed.

3.2 In particular, some of our members feel that the establishment of endowments will be essential to the future success of independent museums and will be looking to the action plan to encourage HLF to revisit the idea of supporting the creation of endowments, as well as looking for ways to encourage private donors to support endowments.

3.3 Innovation and creativity. We believe that the museum sector is often excessively risk-averse and that the action plan should look for ways to support innovation and creativity. At the same time, too many of the funding opportunities available to the sector are short-term and project based. The action plan needs to explore the difficult question of how to foster a museum sector which is more innovative and responsive, but also more sustainable and less short-termist.

4.0 Suggestions for more significant commitments that should be included in the action plan

4.1 As noted above, these are not bids for significant additional funding, but rather initiatives that require DCMS's strategic direction and/or reprioritisation of existing funding. None are intended to be short-term projects, so much as long-lasting changes of emphasis and direction.

Collections mobility

4.2.1 We believe that greater mobility of collections would do more than anything else to transform the experience of museum visitors outside London. Everyone in England (and indeed the whole of the UK) should have the opportunity to see some of the most important objects from our museum collections and to see significant special exhibitions, wherever they live.

4.2.2 Greater collections mobility should include an increase in the number of significant touring exhibitions, which would see existing regional facilities better used. It should also include more loans of single iconic objects or small groups of objects, perhaps following the example of the British Museum's recent programme. The advantage of this kind of small but significant loans is that, while they can generate considerable excitement and publicity locally, even very small museums have the potential to host them.

4.2.3 This kind of activity would complement the work the MA will be undertaking as part of its Effective Collections programme, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, to increase the number of long loans between museums, as a means of making better use of stored collections.

4.2.4 It is worth noting that there is currently DCMS support for touring exhibitions of contemporary art through Arts Council England but that there is no equivalent of this funding and support available for any other field. This seems odd, given that regional audiences are just as likely to be interested in touring exhibitions of, say, natural history or archaeology as of contemporary art.

4.2.5 National museums have already significantly increased their partnership activity with regional museums in recent years. We would like to see DCMS encourage all its funded museums to make a further commitment to invest in programmes of significant loans and touring exhibitions in the regions as a priority. DCMS could help encourage the national museums to expand their activity in this area by ensuring that their achievements in this area were fairly reflected in their performance indicators.

4.2.6 There are a number of examples of good practice that could provide pointers for ways to increase collections mobility. The Sharing Treasures scheme run by NMGW and supported by the Welsh Assembly Government is one, as is Regional Museums Initiative, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

4.2.7 The Touring Exhibitions Group is undertaking research into the extent of temporary exhibition activity and the gaps in provision. Results will be available in May 2007 and will give an indication of priorities for this aspect of collections mobility.

4.3 Workforce

4.3.1 We believe that improvements to the museum workforce will be so central to the delivery of any new vision for the sector that workforce issues merit a much greater focus in the action plan. There is a clear need for a stronger commitment and for more visionary ideas than those included in the current document.

4.3.2 It is disappointing that at least two of the suggestions around workforce from the original Understanding the Future document have not been reflected in the current document. That first document emphasised the need for greater staff mobility between museums, and that is something we would strongly support.

It also placed considerable emphasis on leadership and governance, and again these need to be reflected in the action plan with greater prominence than in the current document.

4.3.3 Of course, there is currently significant investment in leadership, but it is clear that the problems of the sector in this area are far from solved and the action plan needs to continue to engage with this debate. There appear to be particular problems with the development of staff in their first 5-10 years in the sector. As DCMS itself noted in its summary of responses to the first Understanding the Future, the sector appears to be under investing in new recruits.

4.3.4 Many of the shortcomings in workforce development would be solved if all museums were real 'learning organisations', fully committed to excellence in staff recruitment and development. A substantial initiative to improve the workforce development practices of museums, including training for line managers, could bring great benefits. This initiative should be across the whole museum sector.

4.3.5 We believe that issues of governance and the strength and make-up of governing bodies are key to the future health of the museum sector and must be addressed by the action plan. The recent sale of the Lowry from Bury Art Gallery and Museum by Bury Metropolitan Borough Council provides an extreme example of the potential gulf of understanding between museum professionals and governing bodies. There is clearly a need for better training of, and advocacy to, governing bodies.

4.3.6 It is positive that the document recognises the importance of improving the diversity of governing bodies. We believe that this is a crucial element in improving workforce diversity more generally, since the nature of the governing body helps to shape the whole culture of the organisation.

4.3.7 Governing body diversity is problematic in local government museums, given that this is determined by the profile of elected members in a local authority. If DCMS and MLA are serious about improving governing body diversity, this may involve asking difficult questions about governance and structures, not addressed by the current document.

It is notable that one area where the Renaissance programme has failed to pick up on the ideas in the original Renaissance in the Regions report is in addressing issues around governance of local authority museums. This is a very big issue and of course governing body diversity is only a small element of the motivation for change.

But given current pressures within local government and given the likely impact of the current white paper (Strong and prosperous communities, DCLG, 2006), the time must be right for serious work in this area.

4.3.8 The document makes passing reference to the issue of low pay in the museum sector but makes no proposals in this area. We believe that this remains an issue of crucial importance and hope that the action plan will address the issue, for example by finding ways to encourage adoption of the MA's salary guidelines.

4.3.9 It is positive that the document addresses issues around career development. We hope to be able to work with MLA to ensure that the action plan reflects the findings of the MA's current work on entry to the profession. Workforce diversity and entry-level training will only be improved significantly if museums themselves take more responsibility. There is a need for museums to provide accessible work experience opportunities, widen entry routes, including traineeships and apprenticeships, and work more closely with museum studies courses, if they recruit graduates of the courses. In turn, university museum studies courses need to work more closely with museums.

4.4 Online provision

We think it is a serious omission that Understanding the Future says nothing about online museum provision, given that new technology is already reshaping the ways that users engage with museums and has potential to transform the museum landscape very significantly in the coming decades. It is a serious weakness in the museum sector that the many initiatives in this field have been uncoordinated and that DCMS and MLA have both failed to take a clear lead.

4.4.2 There is an emerging debate in the sector about what online museum provision should look like. Should we be prioritising digitising collections so that these records can be used as the basis for a whole range of offers to new and existing users? Or is the main benefit of new technology its potential for interaction? Some people within the museum sector think that the main point of online museum provision should be to encourage debate and to hand over control over information and ideas from professionals to users.

4.4.3 There has already been a huge amount of investment in new technology in the museum sector, the full benefits of which have not been realised, thanks to a lack of coordination and leadership. There is clearly an ongoing need for investment and for a clear strategic lead about the appropriate direction for future activity. The action plan needs to address this issue as a priority.

4.5 Identity

4.5.1 Understanding the Future is right to highlight museums' role in contributing to the debate around identity. However, we believe the document is far too timid on this subject and risks missing an important opportunity for museums to contribute to one of the most pressing social, economic and intellectual issues of our times. The action plan must be less pusillanimous and must make sure that it enables museums to seize the opportunities open to them.

At the MA's Diversity Summit, held in December 2006, David Lammy was rightly critical of museums for not engaging with the key issues facing society including race, religion and migration. We believe that the action plan must ensure that this is not a criticism that can fairly be levelled at museums in ten years' time.

4.5.3 Museums must have a key contribution to make to the place-shaping agenda that is prominent in the current local government white paper. Through the action plan, MLA must ensure museums are able to fulfil their potential in this emerging area.

4.5.4 Of course, matters of identity are by their very nature complex, emotive and highly political. For this reason, government needs to keep its distance from the debate and it would not be appropriate for DCMS or MLA to attempt to tell museums how they should address these issues, or what the outcomes should be.

What is needed from government is encouragement, through funding agreements, and investment in skills: few museums have people with the right kind of skills to address these issues successfully.

Museums Association, January 2007.

For more information, please contact Helen Wilkinson

Helen Wilkinson, Policy Officer
Museums Association
020 7426 6954