The UK’s heritage sector strengths, struggles & strivings
Around 1,500 people attended the MA’s Annual Conference held in Liverpool from 12-14 October. In keeping with the venue, Beatles songs greeted the delegates as they arrived at the beautifully renovated town docks, and showed how even a very small group of people (four) can have a long-lasting positive cultural and economic impact for a town or a country. The Beatles inspired and changed many lives – an aspiration that museums all over Britain share today.
The chosen main conference’s themes – the Therapeutic Museum, Tomorrow’s World and, the Emotional Museum reflect the current national debate on the less tangible aspects of museum social and cultural services, compared with the more traditional focus on collections, curation and associated best practices. As usual at this event, there was also a marketing exhibition for those seeking the best technological innovations, and training workshops. Many events inevitably ran in parallel. Keynote speakers’ views and a taste of the discussions that ensued can be found at the MA’s website and on Twitter at #museums2013.
For some time now, especially after funding cuts started in 2010, museums have been compelled to look into their role in society, invent new strategies to raise income, show and share their collections more extensively and interact with each other around the country more effectively. This seems to be a tall order for many organisations, especially those with no guaranteed income and those run by volunteers. In this climate, can UK museums succeed in firing people’s imagination, instill a sense of joy, contribute to their wellbeing and strongly influence successive generations? Should they also seek to engage audiences in debates about contemporary issues, as well as look after, develop and give access to their collections to researchers and other collections users and, increment the number of exhibitions and loans? Should museums aspire to do all that and can each UK museum and gallery deliver enough services to remain relevant to society today? It is clear from the two days of debates that the majority is trying hard to do just that even in times of severe shortage of funds to pay for all these activities.
The loss of thousands of museum jobs or non-replacement of posts in the last few years has created a massive challenge to most and a full-blown crisis for some in parts of the country. This year, I felt that our strengths, struggles and strivings as a sector to meet these sobering challenges were all laid bare. There is no universal agreement about what the core role of museums should be, but being true to their distinct mission statements seem to be crucial.
A very touching example of strong commitment to its established Purpose came from the Museum of Human Rights in Chile, which seeks to ‘immortalise the deaths’ of the victims of the brutal dictatorship that lasted for 20 years. It provides grieving families and the Chilean society with a space to reflect on the atrocities in the hope that they will never happen again. As we know, justice and human rights are still far from prevailing in many parts of the world.
Another matter brought for debate was the serious funding imbalance between museums in London and those in the countryside. London seems to be getting about 70% of the available public funds. The situation is made worse by the fact that philanthropic donations to museums are really hard to come by outside the UK’s capital.
It is time, perhaps to expand the UK’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme to allow not only donations of Art objects to museums, but also include direct financial contributions to charitable heritage organisations. Is somebody hearing that out there?