Is it time that we rethought our approach to collections?
Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 119/04, 01.04.2019
The Museums Association’s report on its Collections 2030 research project sets out a series of recommendations that aim to create a culture change and will allow institutions to bring their collections to new audiences. Geraldine Kendall Adams reports
Last month, the Museums Association (MA) published the final report for Collections 2030, its ambitious, year-long research project looking at the purpose, use and management of the UK’s museum collections.
The report, Empowering Collections, is the result of a consultation with more than 1,000 people from the museum sector, academia, funding bodies and community groups, and is intended to act as a long-term, strategic guide for collections work over the next decade.
Its publication comes at a timely moment. Just before it was released, Leicester City Council’s museum service announced that it was making its curatorial team redundant in order to focus its shrinking resources on engaging audiences with its collections – a decision that has attracted national headlines and been both condemned and defended by museum professionals.
The decision has brought into perspective the challenges that many collections face following a decade of austerity, and has sparked an at-times-heated debate about priorities in collections work, and the status of specialist curatorial expertise.
Empowering Collections reflects many of these issues and intends to offer a way to move some long-standing debates forward. “A lot of alarm about the status of curators and curatorial knowledge has emerged in the past few weeks, and that’s something we’ve examined in the research,” says Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer and author of the report.
“People are recognising that the resources to operate on that model aren’t there any more and we need to find new ways forward. On the one hand, we need to advocate for curatorial knowledge, but on the other, we need to change how we work.”
Among the main challenges cited by respondents is a culture in museums whereby “work with collections and work with audiences often occurs in silos”. There are also growing fears about the loss of collections resources and skilled museum staff, as a result of the funding cuts.
Another issue that emerged strongly from the research is a tendency among staff to put a premium on “the basics”, such as documentation and preservation, limiting their ability to ensure that collections are seen and understood by the public.
The research found that this is often done to meet what are perceived as inflexible sector standards, including the Accreditation scheme and the MA’s Code of Ethics – even though both were recently reviewed to make them more flexible and audience focused.
Other difficulties set out in the report include ensuring collections are made relevant to growing and diverse audiences, and taking a less piecemeal, and more strategic, approach to improving the digital accessibility of collections. Many of those consulted were also concerned about the size and management of collections, with problems such as overflowing storage and limited staffing and resources leaving many collections “in a state of stasis or even decay”.
To address these challenges, the report sets out three strategic aims: that collections should be empowering, relevant and dynamic. One clear theme that runs through the report is the need for museums to relinquish some control – both within the organisation and externally – over how collections are used and managed.
“Changing the collections culture to be more open and democratic is something that came out really strongly,” says Brown. It’s not a new idea – the move towards co-curation, co-production and participation has been growing for several years – but the research demonstrates how strongly it is felt across the sector.
The first aim, empowering collections, explores their potential to give people the “insight and tools they need to design solutions to contemporary problems, challenge injustice and create stronger communities”, particularly in this era of stark social and political divisions. The report calls on museums to not just democratise their collections, but also to engage with criticism that has been levelled at historic collections practices.
The report recommends a culture change in museums and collections practice to achieve this, urging museums to “expand on the idea of basic collections work”, and to prioritise projects that are “use-led” and involve high levels of participation with museum users and communities.
Instead of viewing curatorial work and audience engagement as two separate branches, the report advocates creating more fluid internal structures in museums to enable “all staff to work with collections and communities and to share their expertise in both areas” – a particularly pertinent point bearing in mind the current discussion about Leicester’s museums.
Further points of action include regularly consulting audiences on how collections are researched, presented and used, and ensuring a diversified workforce. The report recommends a proactive approach to the democratisation and decolonisation of collections – the latter, in particular, is identified as an issue that is rapidly moving up museum agendas.
“One practical area that we can address in the coming years is changing the content, tone and terminology of the colonial histories that some collections reflect,” says one respondent. “We will need to undertake provenance research, conduct collaborative research with source communities and to consider how we can support a more diverse range of voices in our curatorial decisions.”
The second aim outlines how museums need “new and critical public reinterpretations of collections and to think imaginatively about how to broaden the range of people to whom collections can be meaningful”. It advocates carrying out research to understand what the public wants from collections, so that museums can better respond to those expectations, as well as conducting strategic collecting in partnership with communities and with other museums.
Online collections are another area in which a more strategic approach is required, according to the report. Not only should museums make collections more digitally accessible, but museums are advised to take a proactive approach to collecting “born digital” material and engaging with audiences online: “Museums need to create and curate online collections content in a way that speaks the language of the internet and recognises the different cultures and subcultures that exist online.”
The report recommends that the sector should develop an online tool to improve the sharing of collection information between museums.
The report also highlights the importance of embedding the legacy of project work into museums, advocating to funders that collections projects should have a longer life-span to enable this.
The third aim, dynamic collections, looks at some of the steps that need to be taken in terms of collections management to ensure museums can account for the material they hold and its provenance.
To achieve this, the report advocates the development of partnerships and knowledge sharing, and proposes that part of the solution to the loss of subject specialist expertise over the past decade should be the “increasing use of and investment in networks of subject specialists within museums, as well as increasing the participation of non-museum groups – universities, volunteers, societies, private collectors and community groups – in collections work”.
Research shows that disposal remains a tricky topic. It also shows a desire among collections staff for more training and funding for collections rationalisation, which respondents say they lack the confidence and resources to address, as well as shared storage solutions. “The sector as a whole should reduce the shame factor of disposal,” says one respondent. “It should be that organisations feel supported when they are doing this, rather than the fear that they will do it wrong and be criticised.”
The MA plans to share the report’s recommendations with museums, funders and sector bodies across the UK. It has established a reference group of stakeholder organisations and plans to work closely with policy-makers and governments to bring about the strategic investment to turn the recommendations into actions.
The research process has shown that it is “a time of huge challenge and great opportunity” for collections, says Steve Miller, the head of Norfolk Museums, who sat on the project’s steering group. “We can only make a difference to the communities we serve if they feel as passionately about our collections as we do – and that means we may need to change our own relationship with our collections and how we approach the business of collecting,” he says.
“The Collections 2030 work shows that the sector is willing to innovate in how we work with collections. More importantly, the report gives some vital direction about how we can use collections to achieve our shared vision over the next decade.”
Museums need collections to be
Empowering: using collections to bring communities together, promote health and wellbeing, explore issues of place and identity, and equip people with the facts and understanding relevant to contemporary issues.
Relevant: working with users and stakeholders to better understand how collections can be relevant to diverse audiences.
Dynamic: ensuring collections are well -managed, understood, rationalised and accessible to audiences in person and online.
We hope Collections 2030 will be a turning point for museums
The Collections 2030 consultation has been a truly collaborative process. We have spoken to more than 1,000 people from across the UK museum sector, as well as representatives from academia, volunteers and user groups, to find out what the ambitions are for museum collections in the next decade.
The result is a set of recommendations to museums, funders and governments that we think can bring about a culture change and take the sector forwards.
Museums need to seize the chance to make their collections relevant to growing audiences by engaging with contemporary debates, understanding their communities and building effective online curation.
We also want museums to be able to manage their collections more intelligently – with strategic plans that allow for substantial disposal of collections, as well as more integrated and tech-driven storage.
And we want to see support for the resources, skills and knowledge that will enable this to happen.
The past decade has been difficult, as funding has declined and the existing model of managing collections has suffered. I hope Collections 2030 will be a turning point, and will allow museums to bring their collections to diverse new audiences.
Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association