Our heritage, our future: pre-consultation on the third strategic plan, Heritage Lottery Fund

Response from the Museums Association
February 2006
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 and the public.

1.2 The MA values its close working relationship with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). HLF has, over its eleven year history, built up a good understanding of the museum sector and is in general an excellent ally of museums and their users.

The MA hopes that this positive relationship will continue and looks forward to working with HLF over the course of the next strategic plan as a supporter and a critical friend.

2.0 Question 1: In the light our three strategic aims, do you agree with our plans for the future? Are there things that we should stop funding or to which we should give greater priority?

2.1 The MA broadly agrees with a focus on the five areas set out in the consultation document: conserving, regenerating and sustaining our heritage; reflecting our diverse heritage; young people; volunteering; learning and skills. We do however have comments about the emphasis placed on different aspects of these broad themes.

2.2 Museum acquisitions. The MA's Collections for the Future report, published in 2005, explored the question of whether museums still need to collect. It concluded that an active acquisition programme is essential if museums are to meet the needs of current and future audiences.

The report noted that it appeared that far too few museums were collecting with anything like the rigour and energy required. The Art Fund's detailed research on acquisitions, due to be published later this year, will offer a fuller picture. But it is already clear that museums are not all collecting in a way which ensures that we are able to "hand on our most valued heritage to future generations", to quote the consultation document. HLF has a vital role to play in addressing this problem.

2.3 The problem is partly one of culture. Collecting takes time and skill. Curators, under pressure to deliver on a whole range of new agendas, have less time to devote to researching and raising funds for possible acquisitions. As a consequence, a whole generation of curators has relatively little experience of acquiring by purchase and may lack the skills to do so.

2.4 As Collections for the Future outlines, we consider that the special collection scheme run by the Contemporary Art Society from 1998 to 2004 offers a useful model for a different approach to collecting. It funded programmes of acquisitions rather than one-off purchases, with a strong emphasis on skills development.

We believe that this approach could be valuable in other subject areas and we would urge HLF to consider a more strategic approach to acquisitions. This might include funding a programme of this type or encouraging individual museums to propose strategic acquisition programmes for support.

Such approaches would be particularly valuable if they were accessible to smaller museums which are close to local communities, and which are well placed to acquire the kinds of heritage that may not be well-represented in museum collections. Such objects are unlikely to be very high cost but investment is required in developing skills and raising the priority of acquisitions.

2.5 In other areas, of course, high costs are the real problem. The difficulties museums face in acquiring high-value fine art are well-documented. They should not be allowed to distort or dominate the debate around acquisitions, since such acquisitions represent only a tiny proportion of the cultural and scientific heritage that museums might acquire.

Nevertheless, the MA believes that, even with diminished resources in future, HLF must leave open the possibility of funding a very few extremely high value acquisitions, in the same league as the National Gallery's Raphael. The MA has heard it suggested that such applications are less likely to be successful in future but HLF must be aware that there is simply no other organisation capable of stepping into the breach. Charitable foundations are not usually in a position to contribute more than £0.5m towards the cost of works of art.

Museums' own funds for acquisitions are limited or non-existent. And while NHMF funding is to be increased to £10m a year, there will be many claims on its resources. So there is effectively no chance that major works costing perhaps £20m or more can be bought for the nation without HLF support. The MA would not suggest that grants for acquisitions of this kind should be made regularly but HLF must make them occasionally or the great collections of fine art in the UK will never grow.

2.6 Providing more opportunities to engage with collections. Collections for the Future restated the power of museum collections, their potential to inspire and their great contribution to learning. It reminded museums that it is their paramount responsibility to ensure that as many people have as many opportunities as possible to encounter collections in all their richness.

To this end, the inquiry explored the success of initiatives such as open storage and the digitisation of collections in making our heritage more accessible. The report recommended that more research was needed about the success of such initiatives before firm conclusions could be drawn. We hope that HLF will commission further research in these areas: the projects funded by HLF to date offer an invaluable resource as case studies.

2.7 However, even without such research, it is clear that there is both a need for investment in the care and preservation of collections and a need for investment in public facilities that make those collections accessible. Museums sometimes need to invest in facilities such as new stores to enable them to make best use of their collections for the public, even if the direct public benefit of the store itself is slight. The MA urges HLF to recognise this in its approach to funding.

2.8 Reflecting our diverse heritage. Collections for the Future advocates an approach pioneered by a number of museums working in areas including black history and the history of disabled people. A number of projects have re-examined collections from new perspectives, looking for material that is relevant to the lives of people whose history may not have been told in museums before, and often working with relevant local communities to do this.

These projects have often shown that there is a great wealth of material waiting to be uncovered: what is needed is not only new collecting, but new intellectual approaches to existing museum collections. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has directed funding from the latest round of the Designation Challenge Fund to projects which take this kind of approach. There is great scope to open up museum collections to different kinds of interpretation and the MA urges HLF to encourage this approach.

2.9 Skills and training. Career progression and mobility of staff within the museum sector are serious issues which have a direct impact on the quality of service offered to museum users. The MA agrees with HLF that learning and skills should be a key priority for future funding and indeed we welcome HLF's current investment in conservation skills. We also endorse the suggestion that HLF should play a part in encouraging diversity in the workforce.

The MA urges HLF to ensure that this theme runs through all of its grants. For example, we think that any organisation in receipt of funding for posts or projects should be required to develop and implement a training plan to ensure that individuals employed on projects develop skills that they will be able to apply in other organisations.

3.0 Question 2: Which of the approaches to public involvement in decision making set out in the consultation document would work best in the heritage sector?

3.1 A range of different approaches will of course be appropriate for different circumstances and there are pitfalls to avoid.

3.2 As HLF is no doubt aware, a key difficulty with seeking public opinion in the heritage sector is that there are some groups of very passionate individuals who - although motivated by a very strong commitment to an organisation or subject - may distort the debate.

For example, many museums would say that they value their Friends organisation very highly but that they would not use it in isolation for consultation, as it does not reflect the views of their broader users. For this reason, HLF needs to take a subtle and nuanced approach to public involvement in decision-making to ensure that it reflects a broad range of public opinion.

3.3 Of course, a further difficulty is that some parts of our heritage are not widely valued by the public because heritage professionals have failed to make them well known and to offer people opportunities to engage with them. So in order to get a proper sense of how people value some of these heritage Cinderellas, some development work would be needed to reveal their hidden potential first.

3.4 The MA welcomes the suggestion that a wider range of people should be recruited to take part in HLF's committees. We firmly believe that greater diversity at board level is an essential prerequisite to developing a heritage sector that reflects the communities it serves.

3.5 Use of the broadcast media is certainly effective in engaging the public imagination and stimulating public debate. However, it will only ever be appropriate for use in a limited number of areas where candidates for funding lend themselves to comparison in this way.

4.0 Question 3: What more could we do to make our funding more accessible?

4.1 We believe that one of the things that would do most to encourage smaller organisations to access HLF funding would be the example of similar organisations that have been successful in the past. It is currently relatively difficult to access information about grant recipients: for example, you cannot use the HLF web site to search for all successful museum projects, or to get basic information about all the grants awarded in the previous year. Better access to this kind of information would do much to demystify the process.

4.2 A further possibility would be an informal system of mentoring for would-be applicants. Successful applicants could be asked if they would volunteer to support other organisations through the application process or answer queries from those considering an application.

5.0 Question 4: What do you think HLF has done particularly well and what should we change?

5.1 We want to take this opportunity to reiterate our strong support for HLF. It has credibility as an organisation and, after difficult beginnings, has earned the respect of the sector.

5.2 We particularly welcome the fact that HLF is beginning to invest in skills. We think this is a very positive development and would like to see more emphasis on this theme during the period of the next strategic plan.

5.3 It is difficult to single out particular successes from the huge range supported by HLF in museums over the last ten years. But we would like to mention Young Roots as a success in a genuinely difficult area, engaging with a difficult to reach group.

5.4 The area where we would most like to see HLF change is in its approach to risk. We are aware that HLF is under particular political pressure and that all the lottery distributors face intense public scrutiny and hostile coverage in the press: all of this tends to encourage a risk-averse culture.

Nevertheless we believe that HLF could fund more cutting edge projects with a higher risk of failure; the organisation is now strong enough to withstand an occasional failure. HLF funding is so central to the future development of the sector that there is a real danger that museums and other heritage organisations will fail to evolve dynamically for the future if HLF does not fund risky innovation.

5.5 Given its crucial role in the development and evolution of the sector, we also believe that HLF has a role to play in encouraging sustainable organisational change. It is clear that there is a real need for investment in skills in the museum sector, as well as a need for museums to become more flexible and effective as organisations. There is scope within HLF's project funding to help facilitate organisational change through training and development, as well as restructuring.

For more information or comment, please contact:

Helen Wilkinson, Policy Officer, Museums Association, 24 Calvin Street, London, E1 6NW

(e) helenw@museumsassociation.org

(t) 020 7426 6950