Museum professionals of the future (and now) – resourceful and entrepreneurially minded

by Lucy Shaw, Oxford ASPIRE Manager

Delegates sharing ideas at the University Museums Group meeting in Oxford, March 2013
Delegates sharing ideas at the University Museums Group meeting in Oxford, March 2013

I manage Oxford ASPIRE (a consortium of the Oxford University Museums and the Oxfordshire County Museums Service), which is one of the sixteen Major Partner Museums funded by Arts Council England through its Renaissance funding stream.  We are taking an outward-facing leadership role in the museum sector at a regional, national and international level and one aspect of our programme includes running events which support knowledge sharing and the development of skills, expertise and behaviour: http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/museum-training-events. As well as programming events we also use our website to share resources: http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/aspire-resources

We want to play an active role in helping to shape the professionals of the future, but more importantly we are looking at how we (as a sector) can work together to support and develop our knowledge and expertise in those key areas that are perhaps outside the museum professional’s comfort zone. You know what I mean: fundraising, philanthropy and commercial enterprise.

Last autumn I carried out a light-touch consultation with museum colleagues working within the Buckinghamshire-Oxfordshire-Berkshire region to explore what type of knowledge sharing events would be useful for us to develop for the sector.  Of course conversations covered collections, digital thinking, management and leadership, but unsurprisingly Friends, fundraising, philanthropy and commercial enterprise kept popping up.  It isn’t rocket science that in this ‘age of austerity’, with pressure to reduce reliance on public funding, we have to focus our time and energy on developing and demonstrating our commercial acumen.  But this isn’t always a straightforward process and creating innovative new business models and finding new income streams seem to have become the Holy Grail for our sector.

Shop managers at the Ashmolean Museum have contributed to skills-sharing sessions about commercial enterprise.
Shop managers at the Ashmolean Museum have contributed to skills-sharing sessions about commercial enterprise.

I harp on a lot about how brilliant museums and collections are only as good as the people who work in them – a sweeping and not completely true statement, I know, but I do believe that the key to behaving more commercially and having the ability to develop new income streams lies in having the right people in the right posts, or at the very least, having access to them. Ideally, museum directors and leaders need to ensure they have staff in high-level roles that understand business, and who have excellent people and financial management skills.  This may mean bringing people with the requisite skills in from other sectors, but equally museums should be investing in their existing staff, enabling them to gain skills through both formal and informal learning opportunities.

The updated Cultural Heritage Blueprint, published by Creative and Cultural Skills, identifies the development of business, enterprise and entrepreneurial skills as key for the future sustainability of our sector.  The Museums Association recently published the document, Working Wonders: an action plan for the museum workforce which calls for ‘museums, funders and strategic agencies to recognise the challenges that museums and galleries currently face and support workforce and skills development to meet these challenges’.Many museums have brilliant heads of development in post, but many don’t.  Often, this role will fall to an existing member of staff who may have little experience of working within the spheres of fundraising or commercial enterprise, or can do the job really well but has very little capacity (time and resources) to do it justice.

Our work at Oxford ASPIRE, with partner organisations and the wider sector, has shown that many museum professional are in need of advice and guidance to help them develop these skills, along with greater confidence in taking risks.  There are some excellent fundraising and development course available, but for many museums, the cost of attending such courses is prohibitive.

We have established a series of free events around fundraising and commercial enterprise, which aim to provide a forum for museum professionals from across the country to come together and share their knowledge, skills and ideas.  Sessions are programmed to include sector experts (including colleagues from Oxford ASPIRE Museums) and helpful case studies, interspersed with workshop style discussions, knowledge sharing and networking opportunities.  We encourage people to be honest and share experiences of what hasn’t worked, as well as the success stories. For some participants it is an introduction to the topic areas and a real training experience, for others it’s an opportunity to test ideas, or reflect on what they are doing and gain reassurance and confidence that in fact they are doing a really good job.

Our events have included:

An event at the Ashmolean Museum for supporters of the 'Oxford Thinking' campaign.
An event at the Ashmolean Museum for supporters of the ‘Oxford Thinking’ campaign.

Museum leaders need to recognise they have to take risks and invest in existing staff to enable them to develop new skills and behaviours, or bring in new people from outside.  We are working with colleagues to facilitate a shift in thinking, to enable them to recognise the importance of encouraging themselves and their staff to develop a greater commercial and fundraising perspective beyond their obvious remit because frankly the status quo is not an option.

There are plenty of positive examples of museums and galleries changing their organisational cultures and by sharing skills and knowledge, museum professionals can support one another to embrace this commercially minded world.

You can find write –ups and top tips from the above events if you click on them.  Later this year we will be running a workshop exploring legacy giving and in 2014 we plan to host a roundtable event exploring the realities of philanthropic giving.  Colleagues from the London museums community have been attending our events but we would welcome more of you to join us.  Details of the legacy-giving event will be posted on our website in the next few weeks: http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/events/all.

 

Author | Lucy Shaw, Oxford ASPIRE Manager, Oxford University Museums, http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/ @LVShaw and @OxfordASPIRE

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