There has been a lot of discussion in the last year or so about the needs of London’s museums. I have to admit that I might have been the cause of at least some of this. Both the London Museum Development Officers (MDOs) and I have been spending a lot of time asking museums about the support they want. Although we knew that the budget for our ACE-funded Museum Development programme for 2015-18 is at a standstill and that difficult decisions had to be made, we were still keen to gather views about how we should be spending the money. More help with skills sharing was one of the items that came top of museums’ lists, and a new piece of research recommends ways to approach this.
Skills-sharing has a long pedigree in the museums sector, but if anything there is a need to ramp it up further in the coming years as finance for training programmes continues to decrease. But ask two different people to give you examples of what it is, and you seldom get the same answer. Individuals setting up free sessions for others on specific topics, practitioners offering sessions or relevant venues/tours as part of more formal training events, museum networks inviting guest speakers… the list is long. If we’re to support skills sharing in museums, what kind of programme should we be offering? We commissioned research into a suitable model for London, asking museums, stakeholders and MDOs in other regions their views. What came back was a very interesting set of recommendations.
A key finding was that the aspect of the Museum Development programme most highly valued by museums is not the grants or programmes, but the MDOs and the advice they give – particularly their ability to make connections between museums and networks. We have always capitalised on the fact that London MDOs are co-located, allowing us to discuss emerging needs and trends as a team, and offer support and links creatively and proactively. It also means we are better placed to initiate peer to peer mentoring, and we’ll be doing more of this. The peers in our ongoing ‘Survive and Thrive’ resilience programme will also continue more structured mentoring on an organisation wide basis, and the new themed action learning sets that we will be establishing will offer further opportunities to learn from each other on a sustained basis. We’ll be looking for further ways to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution the peers make, to encourage more people to give their time freely.
Another recommendation was that we should do even more support to London’s sub-regional or specialist museum networks on skills-sharing. MDOs are already starting to deliver more skills sessions at these networks, and will also be doing more to identify guest speakers so the networks can cover subjects of their choosing.
The research also recommended an increased, or more visible role, for the largest non-national museums, particularly Museum of London. To be fair, Museum of London’s conservation and collection care team have been doing fantastic skills-sharing across London for a number of years now. Going forward, we will also be running the new ‘Digital Futures’ programme with the learning team and tapping into the customer care and space hire skills being offered by the Museum’s visitor services and hospitality teams. We are optimistic that other Museum of London departments will follow this lead.
On a grander scale, ACE is keen for the Museum of London, the Horniman Museum (both major partner museums) and the William Morris Gallery (a national portfolio organisation) to participate more in skills sharing. We will be initiating this, and indeed have had the first very constructive discussions with William Morris Gallery.
It has been a little while since London’s MDOs and the nationals were in contact, so we’ll be knocking on a few doors to find out what their current offer is for non-national museums in London. We are active within the NMDC ‘Museum Trainers Network’ and have already incorporated its ‘action learning’ methodology into our training programmes for next year. We’re happy to look at other ways of helping unlock nationals’ expertise for the benefit of the wider sector, as well as helping with the flow of expertise in the opposite direction.
Finally, ACE used this study as an opportunity to send out a general message to all museum development services to be more ambitious and take risks: deliver big skills events in new and different ways, do things at different times of the day or in the evening, invite controversial speakers, be daring and different! This is fine and we can certainly look at this. However, the Museum Development budget for 2015-18 is at a standstill. We have done our best to re-balance the programme to free up more MDO time for skills-sharing without compromising Survive and Thrive, which so many say is crucial given the ongoing very tough economic climate museums are facing. We hope we have got the balance right!
Ben Travers is the regional museum development manager for London.