Every person I meet from a museum makes an effort to impress upon me their museum’s uniqueness, its individuality and its special nature. Visiting lots of museums and trying to understand their particular strengths and assets is a wonderful part of my role at Arts Council England, and I will often advocate for the value of a particular museum as opportunity arises. But another big part of my role is long-term development. The development function of Arts Council England allows us to step back and to think about how, why, when and if to invest to bring about change.
Taking a macro view then: – there’s no doubt that this is a tough time for some museums. Some might even say that they are fighting for their very survival. In contrast, other museums are thriving, opening their doors to ever more people and generating new sources of income- it’s not a simple picture.
I like to imagine a world where civic museums are universally revered. In this world, museums are celebrated for their diverse and interesting collections, for their excellence in community engagement, for their leading position as guardians of all our stories, for their contribution to the economy via tourism and employment, for their ingenuity in the face of adversity, for their passion and for their creativity. When I imagine this world, the place of civic museums in the heart of their community is understood and respected, offering a place for people to explore, learn, create and respond to what they see there.
That is not the world that some civic museums in England are experiencing at the moment. The world of some of our local authority funded museums is over-shadowed by a very real threat. Some local councils are already saying they can’t afford non-statutory services and many more anticipate that being the case by 2018/19.
Amongst the myriad of responses being made to this threat, I have been thinking about the power of partnership: – specifically, the power of partnerships between different types and sizes of museum all over England, including our national institutions.
In 2015, Arts Council England allocated a new budget of £1.2m for museums. This was distributed via Museum Development as the Ready to Borrow: Small Scale Capital scheme, which was repeated across each of the nine English regions. This investment has already led to over 60 museums in England developing their capacity and readiness for borrowing objects from national organisations and our Major Partner Museums. Arts Council England also offers other investment which supports partnership working including Subject Specialist Networks, the Government Indemnity Scheme, and projects funded through the Museum Resilience Fund which facilitate the movement of objects led by the Touring Exhibition Group and Bulldog Trust for example.
If we agree that some museums are facing a real and present danger, that the very survival of some civic, local authority museums as a species is in question, then perhaps the time has come for an evolutionary leap? In biological terms, such leaps happen when the old way of being in the world doesn’t work anymore and a lifeform rises above the limitations of its species. Can museums rise above the limitations of the current world order to create a new model for survival?
I believe that museum partnerships of all shapes and size could present part of that evolutionary leap. We know we can prove the economic, political and audience value of a good partnership; look at the local impact that the ‘Cotton to Gold; Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West’ exhibition had when shown at Two Temple Place in January 2015 or the impact of the British Museum spotlight loan scheme ‘The loans are a boon to local museums. They increase visitor numbers, raise the profile of local collections and attract a range of benefits, from wider media coverage to improved fundraising prospects for regional museums – particularly important at a time when local authorities are restricting their funding.’ (British Museum Annual Review 2013).
Of course, national museums currently present many different opportunities for other museums to work with them- we only have to look at Plus Tate or the forthcoming tour of Dippy from the Natural History Museum to see some of the good examples. Indeed, the very fact that most of the nationals have dedicated partnership teams is really encouraging. But it can also be argued that these opportunities are not always transparent. It seems fair to say that some of these partnerships can be opportunistic rather than strategic and resources are limited at the nationals as much as anywhere else. And museums of all shapes, sizes, collections and governance models are determinedly independent and wish to remain so: – but I wonder if this individual survival mentality may jeopardise the future of species museum.
So, at the moment, as I wander around these magical, unique museums that make such a valuable contribution to our nation’s cultural offer, I am thinking about how to encourage powerful partnerships. What can museums of all shapes and sizes do to support each other? What more can national museums do for other museums? How can we build new partnerships to ensure the survival of our astonishing, varied and splendid museum ecology? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts at [email protected] or tweet me @lizmuseums.
Tate Aspire is one initiative where regional museums are benefitting from partnerships. The five-year project will see Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) go on almost constant view across the UK,before it returns to Tate Britain in 2018. The painting will next be on show at Oriel y Park in Pembrokeshire from 19 March to 11 September