Collaboration – What’s Stopping Us?

PE

On Thursday the Future of Collaboration conference will hear ideas and experiences of how museums and higher education institutes can work together. In my role as director of a centre funded to build more effective public engagement across higher education, it’s a topic close to my heart. I don’t know whether it is the beautiful spring sunshine, but I am feeling resolutely optimistic about collaboration. Here are some of the things that I have learned from current projects.

There are many compelling reasons why we should be encouraging collaboration between museums and higher education institutions. Here are a couple:

  • Collaboration makes such good strategic sense: we are all feeling the cold winds of austerity, smaller museums perhaps more than anyone. With increasing pressure on resources, finding efficient ways to share expertise and assets is not a luxury, it’s essential.
  • There is already great work in train that we can learn from – just look at the Share Academy project, or the track record of the Universities Museums Group. We should be sharing this more widely.

My optimism is well founded, I think. I want briefly to mention three projects that I’m involved in which have helped me deepen my understanding of the potential, and limits, of collaboration.

One of these is a new Funders’ Forum for people working in the area of public engagement in informal science learning. The Wellcome Trust’s review of the field in 2012 revealed a complex ecosystem with pockets of very good practice, but a significant set of issues holding back progress. These included ‘silo working’, a weak evidence base and a lack of alignment between the investments of different funders. The new Funders’ Forum brings together the key funders of activity in this space and some of the key deliverers such as the Science Museum Group and the BBC.  One of our first tasks has been to begin to critique how the money flows through the system.   There is a palpable energy in the room when we meet, these are people who really want to see change happen. By working systemically and strategically together, there is a tantalising prospect that we can begin to make some big collective decisions that will make the whole system work better.

The second project is one we are coordinating for Research Councils UK. Called the School-University Partnerships Initiative it was established to try to effect a step change in collaboration between the two sectors. Many millions of pounds have been invested in project after project to bring researchers in universities together with teachers and pupils, but all too often these haven’t delivered lasting benefit. We commissioned a review to analyse the dynamics of these partnerships and to identify where we might focus to make the biggest difference. What we discovered resonates with museums too. Despite there being some major successes, the reality on the ground is less impressive. The review identified structural factors which helped account for this – a really helpful way to focus future work:

  • Limited evidence of impact and benefits from partnerships and a lack of investment in evaluation.
  • Lack of shared vision and agendas at policy level and between universities and schools.
  • Recognising, rewarding and communicating good practice in partnerships.
  • Lack of recognition of the skills and capacity required for key brokerage roles and the associated expectations of researchers and practitioners.
  • Policy pressures make partnerships difficult, including accountability, imposed models and timescales.
  • Cultural barriers make partnerships difficult – how to create a ‘third space’.

The final project is one funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Called How should decisions about heritage be made, it brought together a group of people all committed to cutting through the red tape, bureaucracy and silo thinking that holds back really effective collaboration in heritage. If the Funders’ Forum and School-Universities Partnership review were top down attempts to fix the system, this small project was very much a bottom up attempt to bring together people working in different parts of the system to see if we could collectively develop new ways of working.   Partners in the project included people working in heritage planning, funding, policy, in museums and university research departments, in charities and in community organisations. What we all had in common was a commitment to change. At times it was a recipe for conflict or muddle: how on earth can such different personal and professional orientations towards heritage actually find common ground?

We discovered that a commitment to collaboration was vital, but not enough on its own. As important is ‘acting’, ‘reflecting’ and ‘situating’ your work – key ways in which the barriers and possibilities identified above might be tackled:

  • Act: Make change from where you are.
  • Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate.
  • Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes.
  • Situate: Understand your work in context.

So, what is my recipe for realising this wonderful world of university-museum collaboration? It has two ingredients: much greater alignment and common purpose at a system-level and valuing the role of individual change makers and addressing the many significant barriers to effective collaboration they face day-to-day.

We know what’s at stake, we’re well informed about the challenges – what’s stopping us?

Paul Manners is director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

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