In light of recent reviews and policy changes, Katie Childs from the National Museum Directors’ Council, calls for museums to map out their own future and influence policy through decisive action and a collective voice.
Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer stood at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons in November 2015 and said cutting investment in arts and culture was a “false economy” and did not cut the budgets of the national museums and Arts Council England in real terms, there has been an increasing focus on the impact of culture and cultural policy at national, regional and local level.
Shortly after that Comprehensive Spending Review announcement, DCMS accelerated work on producing the first Culture White Paper – a Government statement of policy and intent, for 51 years. Published in March, it announced that there would be a Museum Review – the first for ten years. Not long afterwards, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (the influential group of MPs that monitor developments in culture, media and sport and make recommendations) opened an inquiry into the state of cultural provision across the UK. Already this year, Arts Council England consulted on proposals to change how they invest in museums; HLF announced new funding streams to encourage museums to transition to more sustainable business models; and HEFCE has started to review the £10.5m it distributes to university museums and collections annually. Every local authority across the UK will shortly assess how they use their much-changed budget to meet local priorities after the recent elections; and in London the new Mayor has already announced a London Borough of Culture initiative.
I cannot remember a time where so much policy relating to museums has come under such scrutiny. My role at NMDC (the National Museum Directors’ Council) is to ensure that our members are in the position of being able to shape policy, rather than have policy changes – however well-intentioned they may be – imposed upon them.
In order to be in a position to shape policy, I think museums have to do two things. Firstly, succinctly say why you matter to the people who make decisions that affect you. You have to demonstrate how what you do helps them achieve their aims, and that you do it very well. To that end, I wrote Museums Matter for NMDC. In this NMDC puts forward arguments for why museums matter to a place and the people within it: museums deliver eight key public policy priorities because they are loved and trusted institutions which have the impact they do because of their collections, their staff and volunteers’ expertise, and their buildings (which all therefore require investment). That argument is then supported by good statistics and memorable case studies.
Secondly, you have to know what you want to achieve, why, and have a suggestion for how to do this (succinctly!). Merely pointing out a problem rarely influences policy: identifying a realistic solution can. That is the approach we took for the consultation on the Culture White Paper, where I wrote a response on behalf of six organisations – NMDC, Museums Association, Association of Independent Museums, University Museums Group, the Collections Trust and The Art Fund – because we realised a collective voice was stronger. The response included a wide range of suggestions of how government could support museums – from small policy changes to bigger, more innovative, ideas – but all devised in a way that was took account of political realities.
So how can you influence policy that affects your museum? It would be impossible to respond to all public consultations, so check whether the groups you are a member of are putting in a collective response and contribute to those. However, you need not – nor should not – wait for someone else to decide policy is to change. You could set about trying to make changes yourself. Be aware of the local decision-making timetable and set about collating evidence as a matter of course.
My challenge to all London museums would be to do three things to help achieve this.
Firstly, to succinctly summarise why you matter to those who make decisions that have an impact on your museum’s future. If improving health and well-being is the main priority for your local authority, show how your museum does this and why. If attracting day visitors to your borough is the main priority for the local chamber of commerce, then show them that you are a major attraction. If your MP was elected on a promise to improve youth employment prospects, then show them how you inspire young people and provide them with transferable skills. As you can see, I work on a rule of three: providing three examples is always more memorable. When it comes to case studies I like to have one which is already quite well-known, one which demonstrates breadth or scale, and a quirky one which will stick in the mind. Luckily, museums have a keen sense of the ridiculous and so make the most of your over-stuffed walrus, jar of moles, or horse vertebrae in the shape of John Wesley.
Secondly, map your stakeholders and find ways to demonstrate to them that you are a good thing doing good things. I am not a huge fan of starting to engage a key stakeholder with a sit-down meeting. They are inevitably awkward, with the museum embarrassed to ask for something and the person you are meeting trying not to agree to something they have not had time to consider. Museums are at a natural advantage here though as two or three times a year most will change their exhibition, and even if they do not, they are likely to have a fascinating venue to host civic events or meetings. Why not have a series of private views at breakfast time to begin to welcome in key stakeholders and introduce them to the museum and get to know them in a less formal way?
Thirdly, look at what you want to achieve in the future, what you might need to see changed in order to achieve it, and who you would need to persuade. I call these “aims and asks”.
Museum policy is moving quickly and the time to convince key decision makers that museums are worth supporting – politically and financially – is now. With so many policy reviews, now is the time for us to shape our sector’s future, rather than have someone else map out our future for us.