Communication is central to good museum practice, with diverse channels available for sharing information and advice about every imaginable aspect of museum activity. As the sector has professionalised over the last few decades, there has been a focus on identifying common museum infrastructure roles for which appropriate standards can be set, allowing good practice guidelines to be developed and shared. These have provided frameworks for Accreditation and Designation and have helped reduce the risk of poor delivery of museum services, creating better conditions for collections.

Alongside these infrastructure roles are the subject specialist roles. These will often overlap or feed into core roles, but they will vary according to specific collection types, making common standards harder to identify and establish. Nonetheless, subject specialist roles provide the knowledge needed for collections to be developed and used effectively. Good subject specialists provide quality control for museums and an open line of communication with other sectors – particularly with academia – which can contribute significantly to institutional reputation.

But what makes a good subject specialist? Where standards are hard to establish, competencies and peer review can prove useful, so communication between subject specialists is vital for expertise to be gauged and improved. Similarly, without the exchange of ideas, sharing of techniques and critique of peers, specialist fields can stagnate – losing relevance and respect. With this in mind it should be no surprise that many subject specialists have formed grassroots organisations, fuelled by a passion for their subject and keen to identify and share good practice.

The value of these Subject Specialist Networks (SSNs) should not be understated in the museum sector. Beyond their role as a professional forum for progressing disciplines and supporting development of specialists, they also provide a repository of knowledge, experience and contacts that can help support non-specialists. This support role is likely to be increasingly called upon as ongoing cuts erode posts and reduce access to specialists for some museums.

Arts Council England acknowledges the important contribution that SSN’s make to the sector. In the words of John Orna-Ornstein, Director for Museums, “we recognise the role played by SSN’s as a vital platform for knowledge exchange across the museums sector as well as their invaluable role in training and mentoring. We are committed to continuing our support for SSN’s.”

However, for SSNs to really step up into this role they will need the flexibility to adapt to a changing sector. Seminars, workshops and annual meetings provide the mainstay of most SSN communications: and rightly so, since face-to-face is by far the most effective form of engaging people. Yet tightening budgets and time demands on museum professionals, who are expected to deliver more with less, make conferences and seminars harder to attend. Meanwhile, SSNs face rising costs of publications, catering and venue hire for running events.

Some of these pressures may be reduced by increasing digital delivery of information, although there can be accessibility issues for some users. Another way in which pressures could be reduced is for more museums to acknowledge the sector support value of SSNs and provide meeting spaces, staff time or budget to help maintain their activities. However SSN’s take on the challenges of the future, it is clear that the knowledge and experience of their members is needed by the sector. From safeguarding collections to making them relevant in a wider social context, there is a demand for subject specialist expertise.

If you are interested in finding out more about SSN’s there is a list of existing networks available through Collections Link. Most SSN’s have websites and many are membership organisations that cost very little to join and who can offer a huge amount of support and information – it’s well worth getting involved!

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