A Significance Recognition Scheme for Non-National Museums and Galleries in Scotland

July 2005
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 4,500 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 not-for-profit charity, receiving no 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.

This response draws on the views of MA members. Contributions to the response were invited from all members and the MA's elected Council discussed the document at one of its three annual meetings.

In June 2005 the MA published the report of its 2004 enquiry into the place of collections in museums in the UK, called Collections for the Future.

The report's main theme is that museums should do more to make better use of their collections and take an objective view of collections which have never been displayed or researched or used in other ways.

The findings of the report are particularly relevant to plans for development of collections in both the National Audit and the proposed Recognition Scheme.

The MA welcomes this examination of significance and the development of a Recognition scheme to support significant non-national collections.

Recognition will be a key way of supporting non-national collections and that this is Scotland's opportunity to create a nation-wide strategy for raising the profile and support for these collections.

The scheme is a logical step arising from both Scotland's National Audit and the discussions over cultural entitlement and has become particularly important now that the report of the Cultural Commission has just been published.

The scheme should start to address and communicate the key public benefits such a scheme will bring not only to Recognised collections but also to the communities in Scotland and beyond who will use them.

In other words it should help identify and promote significant collections so that the public, not just other museum professionals, can get greater use from them and develop a better understanding of Scotland's cultural heritage.

The English experience of recognition, through the Designation Scheme, has brought benefits, although not all aspects of the scheme have been without controversy, particularly over concerns about some museums benefiting more than others.

These experiences highlight the importance of a robust and respected rationale which is also transparent and logically implemented. Commentators on the scheme felt that it was not always easy to follow the process and some museums felt at a disadvantage.

Following these experiences the MA thinks that the Recognition Scheme can and should avoid these pitfalls by establishing a clear and transparent scheme from the outset.

Those outside the scheme should not feel that they have been abandoned and any future body overseeing museum interests should continue to actively support organisations which have not been included in the Recognition scheme.

We welcome the consultation paper's acknowledgement that this is part of a wider national strategy to deal with the issues affecting all Scottish museums.

We infer from the basic nature of the consultation paper that this Significance Recognition Scheme proposal is only the start of the process and the main task is to relatively speedily create a set of Recognised collections so that further proposals can be made for their development. Nevertheless we would like to make a few further points about the wider context of the scheme.

Scotland's national museums, although outside the Recognition scheme, have an important role to play in helping other museums and organisations with collections to improve expertise and knowledge. Recognised museums should be key partners for national museums with similar interests or collections.

National museums and galleries should work with Recognised museums and galleries and be open to collaboration on a national, UK wide or international basis.

Their support is particularly important for example in providing and fostering expertise and training, in temporary exhibition strategies and in touring collections.

The MA supports and welcomes the task of mapping and giving official recognition to significant museum collections in Scotland but we feel strongly that this should not become an inward looking scheme.

Any Recognition scheme created by the Scottish Executive and SMC should complement and include broader contexts. For example subject specialist networks are featured in the MA's Collections for the Future as important sources of expertise and support, with particular potential to help those with significant material.

These are UK wide and there should still be an opportunity for Scotland's museums to participate, contribute and benefit. Scotland's significance recognition scheme should enable and encourage Scottish museums to remain involved in UK wide partnerships and undertake collaborative working.

Consultation Questions
The MA broadly agrees with all of the consultation questions, although many are hard to respond to without greater detail. The comments about distinction between international, national and local significance are puzzling as they are already well defined in the National Audit. These should be retained but further exploration of this point would be welcomed.

The MA thinks that the basic principles of the scheme are correct and appropriate and at this stage there are no additional principles to adopt. We agree that the proposed significance criteria are correct although we have further comments below.

The range of evidence is appropriate and the general criteria for collections management are appropriate. The process of Recognition is basic but comprehensive.

The MA does think that the Recognition scheme should recognise collections owned by more that one organisation and agree with the partnership terms.

Additional Comments
Principles and Criteria that should underpin a significance recognition scheme

The MA has further comments on the proposed criteria for significance under question three.

In many assessments of significance, a collection's importance is also assessed in terms of place, context, history, use as well as museological aspects.

Australia's "Burra Charter" is possibly the scheme the consultation indirectly refers to as its Australian "model" on page 5. The Charter sets a standard of practice for those who provide advice, make decisions about, or undertake works to places of cultural significance, including owners, managers and custodians and explicitly puts more "emotional" significance as one of its main criteria.

This acknowledges that community values, spiritual significance other less tangible aspects are part of an object's cultural significance.

The MA feels that, since the Recognition Scheme will be part of a wider exploration of cultural entitlement, one of the criteria for assessing significance should be "cultural" significance and that it should be either included as a separate point or clarified within the list of quality indicators.

Thus a collection can not only be significant because it, say, reflects an aspect of cultural life but because its qualities mean it is also charged with particular "iconic" status or meaning for particular communities.

This definition is included in the National Audit and should not be ignored in the definition of significance Recognition.

The process of recognition
The MA has further comments on aspects of the process of recognition.

Under question eight we would further add to point 6.2 that appropriately "experienced members of staff" should be clarified.

Staff members can also be unpaid, for example volunteers, and the scheme needs to be explicit about whether this is an appropriate level of support for collections.

The MA thinks that experienced volunteers are crucial to supporting collections but they often need other resources to help them make the best of other aspects of caring for a collection and running the organisation hosting it.

Recognition may alter the level of care and communication a collection needs and staff caring for it need to have appropriate support.

In response to question twelve, the MA thinks that the process of Recognition is appropriate. We particularly welcome the fact that it is not a solely tick-box scheme and contains significant involvement from the Recognition Committee and independent experts.

The MA also welcomes the fact that there are no limits on numbers of applications mentioned on the scheme at present as we feel these would be unhelpful.

Significant collections which meet the criteria for selection should be recognised wherever they are and no scheme should be limited to the few who can make applications most easily. We assume that the National Audit helped to identify the main significant collections and that the suggested three initial rounds are based on these findings.

Anecdotal evidence and research suggests that organisations can be limited by their lack of expertise or resources to apply for time consuming initiatives such as designation or project funding.

It would be highly beneficial if some sort of support scheme could be established similar to (or exceeding) the support given to museums undergoing Accreditation. Even fairly well established museums need help. It should be possible to find ways to give such help while avoiding conflicts of interest.

Deployment of funding support for recognised collections
The MA agrees that the funding proposals are appropriate but there are additional comments in response to question thirteen.

The MA strongly supports the need for adequate funding for the Recognition Scheme. We feel that its wider benefits and opportunities for development should be included in funding proposals, as well as the basic needs of rolling out the scheme.

Recognition funding should be a catalyst to improve all of the selected museums beyond any basic level of achievement under Accreditation/Recognition and should work closely with the development aspects of the new Accreditation scheme.

There should be additional encouragement for museums with Recognised collections to undertake continuous improvement and exceed the basic requirements of Accreditation. Recognition funding could be directed at museums with the greatest needs identified under Registration/Accreditation.

Recognition funding should certainly include activities which help improve both fabric and conditions directly relating to Recognised material but there will need to be some boundaries set between funding meant to benefit Recognised collections and those which benefit the rest of the organisation looking after it.

More support should be given to museums to either make a renewed case for any core funding they might receive towards the fabric and upkeep or be encouraged and supported to use their Recognised status to lever in additional funding.

One key source of additional funding is HLF Scotland. Its funding will be increasingly under pressure in the coming years and there should be a very strong programme of advocacy with funders such as HLF to make them aware of the benefits of Recognition.

Key to this will be any public benefits Recognition might bring and so, as mentioned, these will be crucial avenues to explore and should be presented as part of a robust and coherent Recognition development strategy.

Recognition related funding should also help less well resourced and supported museums and the MA would particularly welcome the development of proposals to give fixed term general support to organisations with smaller Recognised collections, those with a more miscellaneous range of significant material and those whose recognised collections would form the bulk of their activities.

However the greatest benefit of additional Recognition funding should be to significantly improve an organisation's ability to care for its collection and communicate it to the public, whatever the size of organisation or collection. This would be particularly beneficial if coupled with additional resources such as HLF funding.

Funding could be directed at both projects and longer term solutions designed to engage the public with collections and create a more dynamic approach to collections through loans and temporary exhibitions and collaborative working.

Funding could also be directed at activities which support getting more of the significant collections out into the public realm, such as documentation and conservation.

There are relatively few museum education professionals currently working in Scotland's museums and a long term scheme to improve education provision in museums and galleries with significant collections would be highly beneficial.

However, education professionals are not the only ones with responsibility for communicating collections. Funding could also be usefully targeted at specific schemes to improve the knowledge, confidence and expertise of other museum staff to deal with Recognised collections, including curatorial, conservation and visitor services staff.

Recognition funding could also be directed at helping relevant museums establish and maintain partnerships both within the museum sector and in other sectors in culture and education. The MA has been looking at the place of "brokers" which help organisations with their partnerships and relationships.

It may be more helpful to establish brokers right across the museum or culture sector and not solely for Recognised collections. However, it would make sense in the context of building a Distributed National Collection, for museums holding Recognised collections to be targeted to receive extra help to maintain and support relevant relationships.

Please direct any queries to the MA's policy officer, Judy Aitken: judy@museumsassociation.org