Response to MLA consultation document: Securing Excellence; delivering for communities

Key points

A The Museums Association welcomes the work that MLA is doing to help museums secure a place in local area agreements and can see some benefits in the current approach which attempts to demonstrate the fullest range of contributions made by museums.

B However, while the current approach demonstrates that museums (and libraries and archives) can make an extensive variety of contributions, it risks failing to convince that museums contribute at a high enough level in any one area.

We think museums would be in a better position if MLA was able to develop primary strong statements of the intrinsic, high-level contribution of museums to a block. (This would not prevent some mention being made of other, smaller contributions when appropriate). Below we give an example of how this could be approached for Safer and Stronger Communities.

C It will probably be most effective if this could be done for culture as a whole, rather than museums, libraries and archives as a whole and we urge MLA to work with other national agencies (such as Arts Council England, Sport England and English Heritage) to make a strong case for the proper inclusion of culture as a whole at a high level in local area agreements.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that museums will find it hard to secure a suitable place in local area agreements; this is of course potentially damaging to local authority support for museums. We hope MLA will closely monitor the experience of individual museum services in attempting to negotiate a suitable place in local area agreements.

E The performance management framework should also include indicators for less public facing areas of work such as collections care, loans, volunteer involvement and workforce diversity.

Detailed points

The Museums Association is the independent membership body representing museums and people who work for them, throughout the UK. The majority of local authorities supporting museums are institutional members of the Museums Association. We have not directly consulted our members about the consultation document, as we assume MLA has directly sought the views of local authority museums.

2 This response raises several general points, which we hope are helpful to MLA in taking forward its work to help museums advocate their place in local area agreements.

3 We think the three-part approach of outcomes framework, performance management and improvement is good. We would like to see an additional area of work in which MLA, ideally in partnership with other culture-sector bodies such as Arts Council England, strengthens its engagement with government and key local-authority organisations to ensure that culture is properly represented in the new local-government planning and assessment framework. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more needs to be done to ensure that national guidance will achieve proper incorporation of cultural services in local area agreements.

4 In particular, we think that it would be helpful for MLA to try to secure agreement that museum services (and possibly all cultural services) should have an agreed primary contribution that could be used within each of the four LAA priority areas.

MLA's current approach, while admirably thorough, runs the risk of being too broad and may have the effect of fragmenting the contribution of museums into a long list of impacts that even taken together appear rather small compared to the overall impact museums can have on a locality. Articulating the key overall impact on each theme is likely to give more chance of the inclusion of museums in an LAA than many lesser ones.

5 That is not to say that a wide range of benefits are not also worthy of mention where this can be secured in an individual LAA if local circumstances make that possible.

6 As an example, consider Safer and Stronger Communities. The consultation paper gives several examples of museums' contribution against this priority, but we believe there is a higher level of contribution that is missing.

By its very existence as a key part of the public realm accessible to all a museum play a part in defining a community. By caring for and making accessible a collection on behalf of society it helps to define that community. It helps to define place and identity through its displays, particularly if it is a local history museum.

7 In the stories they tell and the objects they collect and display, museums contribute to community cohesion. This is particularly true of museums that are embracing the diversity of modern Britain and displaying the lives and histories of a wide range of local communities. Indeed museums are one of the few places where communities can learn about each other.

Powerful examples of this include exhibitions about refugees. Museums do more than simply present the story of a community; in many cases they play a part in recording and defining a community, producing and communicating new knowledge about it. The representation of a community in a museum, and the inclusion of relevant artefacts in a collection, can be a powerful form of inclusion. Strong communities understand their past and the contexts in which they now exist.

8 Museums that deal with subjects other than local history also play a part in strengthening communities. As noted above, the presence of a museum helps create a sense of place and identity. In addition, the fact that many people of all ages and backgrounds in an area have visited a museum and have a shared experience also contributes to a sense of community.

9 Indeed, museums are also a key component of local quality of life. They are one of the things that makes living in a locality worthwhile (and for this reason can be significant in helping to attract investment to an area).

10 In the case of the economic development theme, we believe it would be helpful to have a strong statement of the key role that museums (and culture as a whole) play in attracting economic activity, such as inward investment and tourism.

11 The key priorities of LAAs are not a perfect fit with museum services. Anecdotal evidence suggests that different local authorities are considering museums under a variety of themes. It is for this reason that we need a strong statement of the way in which museums can contribute to each theme. It is important that wherever possible this statement concentrates on the intrinsic strength of cultural services and museums.

12 Some of the contributions described above can not be directly measured, but a participation indicator is a helpful guide to impact; we think there is also likely to be great potential in MLA's generic social outcomes.

13 Moving on, we agree that a performance management framework will be useful. However, we note that museum accreditation is not a particularly subtle benchmarking tool, as museums are either accredited or not (although some may be provisionally accredited). Museums would benefit from more generally agreed measures that can assess quality of performance.

These measures should not be restricted to user experience, but should also include measures of the quality of collections care (perhaps based on MLA's Benchmarks in Collections Care). We also think it would be helpful if there could be agreed measures to assess individual performance against current sector priorities, such as loans out and workforce diversity. Volunteering is also an important contribution made by some museums.

14 It would also be helpful if museums had a standard suite of measures of efficiency, such as cost per user (of different types), cost per square metre of gallery space, costs of storage. These measures are often crude but can be a useful part of assessing where there may be room for improvement.

15 We realise that it would take a lot of work and discussion to determine a useful set of standard indicators, but believe MLA should seriously consider its potential benefits in encouraging and measuring sector change. There is potentially useful experience of using a suite of benchmark museum indicators in, for example, the West Midlands and Scotland.

16 We hope these comments are helpful and look forward to MLA's progress with this work.

Maurice Davies
Museums Association