MA response to NIMC Collections Development Strategy Consultation

February 2009

1. 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 5000 individual members and 600 institutional members.

Formed in 1889, it receives no regular government funding. It seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and the people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to everyone.

1.2.
The MA has given its views on collections and collecting in the Collections for the Future report (2005), through the Effective Collections programme (2006 to date) and through its consultation on collections-related knowledge (2008).

Publications associated with this body of work further discuss the general themes highlighted in response to the specific consultation questions.

As a sector body we cannot address some of the consultation questions, but would like to support development of the strategy with the comments in the following pages. We find it difficult to add to these views in such detailed terms as are requested in this consultation, so have made general comments in response to the issues raised.

2. Responses to Consultation Issues


· How can we stimulate proactive collecting by museums?
· How could museum collections be developed strategically?
· Have you assessed the actual and potential impact of the RPA upon your museum and its collection?

2.1.
The MA agrees that collecting needs to be supported in museums to enable strategic collections development. Collecting new material is a core function of museums, but should be seen as a part of collections development alongside disposal, loans and other sharing/use of collections to keep collections manageable and relevant - balance is key.

As part of Effective Collections, the MA published the Disposal Toolkit in 2007 and has since developed a training workshop in using the toolkit, with another session currently in development looking at how to conduct a collection reviews. We would be happy to offer these training workshops in Northern Ireland.

2.2.
Funding for acquisitions is clearly an issue, but there are other ways in which museums and sector bodies can support collections development. One key point is for museums to look again at their collections policies to ensure that the long-term vision for their collection is spelt out.

For example, this may mean writing a collections development policy that exceeds the minimum standards of the Accreditation model acquisition and disposal policy, or implementing practices such as conducting collections impact assessments prior to accepting new material (to anticipate a museum's capacity to care for and use collected items). Some of these ideas are contained in the new BSI PAS 197:2009, A Code of Practice for Cultural Collections Management.

2.3.
Proactive collecting also needs confident and capable collectors. Fostering and sharing expertise allows curatorial staff in museums to develop confidence within their subject specialisms and within collecting techniques - for example working with source communities or acquiring through auctions.

This can be achieved through training courses from bodies such as NIMC or the MA, especially at a fairly basic level, but the MA has found that masterclasses and peer support through networking (e.g. through 'buddying' staff across different organisations) can be a much more sustainable approach to developing skills at a more advanced level.

The masterclasses run by fellows within the Monument Fellowship scheme are a good example of this. This is a current area of work for the MA, and we will publish further guidance in the coming year on developing collections-related skills and knowledge.

2.4.
Subject Specialist Networks (SSNs), some of which have received funding from MLA in England in the last few years and can be found on www.collectionslink.org.uk, have a potential role to play both in fostering collections-related knowledge and in linking together similar collections.

A key part of proactive and strategic collecting is for museums to work together to ensure collections are complimentary, as much as possible, and to avoid duplication.

2.5.
It is difficult for the MA to comment on the impact of the Review of Public Administration in Northern Ireland. However, we would encourage museums to work together in advance of an amalgamation of services - both to prepare for change and to advocate the value of the museum services throughout the process.

Sharing electronic catalogues, and coordinating collecting policies/remits would be a useful initial aim, and would also have the benefit of bringing together people from museums to achieve the development of collections skills and knowledge highlighted above.

· Should a condition survey be undertaken on your museum's collection?
· In what way could documentation backlogs be tackled effectively and efficiently?
· Do you think there are merits in working collaboratively with other museums concerning collections storage?
· What hindrances do museums face in ensuring high standards of monitoring and control of the museum's environment? How could this be addressed?

2.6.
While museums should certainly aim to increase their knowledge of and accountability for collections, the MA questions the approach in museums of tackling documentation backlogs.

In planning to document, or retrospectively document, collections we would urge museums to consider more fully how they wish to provide physical and intellectual access to objects and target their documentation accordingly. For example, there might be a place for increased use of collections-level descriptions, or a stronger focus on using images.

2.7.
Collaborative approaches to storage can be a really sustainable and workable idea for museums, especially where material will be stored off-site in any case. There are initial hurdles in organising shared storage, with significant benefits later in terms of shared staff and HR, shared facilities, capacity to allow access to stores and reduced energy consumption. Case studies from National Trust regional stores or the regional museums store at Beamish in North East England may be useful.

2.8.
As part of the MA's work both on collections and on sustainability, we have an interest in ongoing work led by the National Museum Directors' Conference to re-examine environmental standards in museums and the science behind them.

Current environmental standards are prescriptive and, for many types of material, act as a blunt tool that prevents a whole range of activities with objects and makes storage or loans much more expensive.

The MA agrees with NMDC that as a sector we need to look again at what we are trying to achieve with environmental control systems: could microclimates be better used for sensitive materials, is air-conditioning really necessary for the majority of materials in museum collections?

The National Trust are leading the sector in researching and putting into practice sustainable ways of managing environments in historic buildings.

· How can we build capacity within our museums so that further research on collections can be undertaken? What initiatives could be developed?
· What initiatives do you feel would be appropriate and beneficial to enhancing the expertise of museum staff? How can we ensure that museums have access to knowledge about their collections that may be held elsewhere?
· What collections access programmes have you found to be most successful?
· Should the collections development strategy include initiatives to encourage digitisation of collections? What types of initiatives should be taken forward?

2.9.
Developing research capacity is central to the current MA work on collections-related knowledge. Our recent consultation identified a range of means of building capacity from providing basic training in research skills, to publication of guidance on being research ready and providing services for researchers.

It also identified a need to raise the profile of research as a core part of museum activity. Some projects may arise from the MA's work in this area - for example there was support for a sabbatical or secondment scheme to allow subject specialist research - however, the way in which we will progress these ideas is still in development.

2.10.
Digitisation should be addressed in the collections development strategy, however the MA does not have the specialist skills in this area to usefully suggest an approach in detail.

There is clearly a demand from museum users for images of objects in collections, as identified in the UCL research report Collections for People (2008), but the MA would urge museums to view digitisation as only one of many possible forms of access to collections.

Publication of a catalogue online, for example, offers limited experience of a collection and, while better than nothing, will increase demand for physical access that should be considered and managed by a museum.