Response to report on the Arts and Humanities Research Board's support of University Museums and Galleries

September 2004
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 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.

2. The major university museums and galleries are institutional members of the MA, and are represented on the its governing body. In preparing this response, the MA has consulted with its public affairs committee, and with its councillor for university museums.

3. The MA believes that the AHRB is a constructive and supportive funder of university museums and galleries. The AHRB has evidently gained the confidence of the sector through its open and consultative approach. It is to be commended for its efforts to help university museums and galleries modernise, and the MA welcomes this report's emphasis on driving up standards in university museums.

4. The MA has some specific comments on some of the report's recommendations, and these are set out below (paragraphs 9 to 13). The Association also has some more general concerns and has identified a number of issues, which need to be addressed in relation to the report's recommendations. These are set out in paragraphs 5 to 8; however, they should be seen in the context of the Association's overall support for the report's proposals.

5. Many, though not all, university museums have recognised that they have the potential to greatly expand their role. They would welcome the opportunity to improve their displays, make their buildings more accessible, extend their opening hours and reach new audiences. However, to do so effectively, they must have the support of their universities. The report stresses the responsibilities of university museums but perhaps does not emphasise strongly enough the responsibilities of their parent universities. AHRB should find ways of ensuring that universities do more to support their museums, as well as encouraging museums to improve their practice. AHRB could use its funding to lever in additional support for university museums, by making it conditional on greater commitment from universities.

6. The report identifies a large number of areas where university museums might improve. The MA believes that it might be more effective for AHRB to focus on a smaller number of these during its next funding round, in order to maximise the impact of its attempt to drive up standards. In the light of the comments made in paragraph 5, the MA would encourage the AHRB to focus particularly on the recommendations which aim to build closer relationships between museums and their host universities. Many other benefits could flow from this, such as more stimulating and timely temporary exhibitions, and better publications.

7. The report clearly sets out AHRB's ambitions for university museums and galleries. However, it is not clear what the link will be between these aspirations and funding decisions. The MA suggests that a more transparent mechanism for allocating funding would help to drive up standards in the university museums sector. An approach similar to that used in assessing research proposals, where applicants are graded on specific aspects of their application, might be welcomed.

8. The MA's final general point concerns the University Museums Group (UMG). The MA believes that UMG's recent document about university museums, A National Resource for the 21st Century, is a serious and thoughtful attempt to survey the strengths and weaknesses of the sector. The MA would urge AHRB to take account of the document and of UMG's recommendations for the future in establishing the new basis for its funding regime.

9. Point 6: extending public access. The MA agrees that university museums should be open at times which make it easier for general users to visit; in particular, all should aim to have at least some weekend opening. However, the requirement to open for 5 days a week or the hourly equivalent may not be appropriate. The MA recommends that this requirement be amended to bring it into line with the Registration standard. At the time of writing, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council was finalising the new Registration standard.

However, it is likely that it will insist that all museums have opening hours which give a reasonable level of public access, while recognising that what constitutes a reasonable minimum will vary from one museum to another. (For example, seasonal opening hours may be appropriate for museums in some rural areas.) The hours that university museums can reasonably be expected to open will partly depend on their size: a very small museum in a single room probably cannot admit general visitors at the same time as educational groups, for example.

The recommendation also needs to recognise that museums have different ways of making their collections available, for example through loans to other museums and to schools or through web-based resources. Opening hours do not indicate on their own how accessible a museum is.

10. Point 12: the role of university museums in promoting interaction between other museums and the higher education sector. The MA welcomes this emphasis. It is clear that there is an under-exploited potential for greater collaboration between museums and universities, as well as a dearth of serious research in museums. The AHRB clearly has a role to play itself in encouraging museums to undertake more ambitious research projects, in partnership with universities where appropriate.

11. Point 13: staffing levels. The recommendation here seems rather vague; the AHRB needs to clarify what it considers "appropriate staffing levels" to be.

12. Point 14: moving towards providing 50% funding. The MA welcomes this proposal, provided that emphasis is placed on rewarding those universities which are currently generous in their financial support of their museums, as well as on encouraging greater commitment from others.

13. Point 16: governance. The MA supports the recommendations made by UMG in its recent document, that governance arrangements should be made more transparent, and that there is an advantage in including non-academics on a museum's governing committee, where they have relevant expertise in a field such as fund-raising or marketing. There may also be merit in including representatives from a museum's local community.

For further information, please contact:

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

Tel: 020 7426 6950