I’ve just read the Mendoza Review on the train to the Museums Association conference in Manchester. I haven’t yet read any comments/opinion pieces on it yet, so these are my immediate, rather ill-structured reflections. I am sure many conversations will emerge in Manchester over the next 3 days, and in the coming weeks, and my views that follow may shift…
So, what did I think? Although there is much to welcome (not least the joining of forces between various sector organisations – I really like the use of lottery funding for much needed back-of-house development – p.15, the need to continue diversifying audiences and workforces – p.40, to develop leadership – p.57, ensure digital understanding by senior leaders – p.61, and focus on collections – p.44), I have to say I feel slightly disappointed…
The report asks: ‘What can government do to assist in creating and maintaining a thriving, sustainable and effective museum sector in Britain?’ (p.6) My answer: it can provide funding, enable another ‘Renaissance’. The report states: ‘we estimate that the government provided total funding of approximately £844m in 2016/2017.’ (p.7) But what does this mean? Are we supposed to think this is a lot, a generous gesture from the government? How does this figure compare with the government spending on education, health, sport, defence? Surely that would give a better indication of how much museums are really valued? And what about their intrinsic value?
And then there, in black and white: ‘It is unlikely that there will be significant additional money available for the sector in the immediate future. The main thrust of our recommendations is, therefore, to ensure that we use existing funding in the best way possible.’ (p.7, italics mine). Dash our hopes straightaway.
Despite trying to think about regional activity and the local placemaking agenda of museums, the report still reads as a very London-centric (or certainly nationals-centric) report. And as such it is hierarchical (and somewhat patronising?) in tone. The section on ‘National responsibilities for national museums’ grated particularly (p.14): ‘The Review team recognises the excellent work already taking place, but would like it to be more strategic to ensure audiences and museums outside London get what they need from the nationals’. Fine – yes, this is of course an important aim – but what about what the regionals might give the nationals? Nationals need things and can learn hugely from the non-nationals/regionals and their approaches. Nationals are still going to be getting the lion share of the funding. ‘Our great national museums are open to all and free to all’ (p.8) – they also benefit from huge numbers of tourists, and while I don’t begrudge free entry in the slightest – would that all museums were free for all? – I wonder at the financial sense here. It’s also fantastic that recommendation 9 is to grant local authority museums more freedom, but where is the funding and support to actually enable this to happen?
Our ‘wonderfully different’ (p.5) museums are exactly that. And there’s a definite recognition here building on things like the MA’s Museums Change Lives that museums can ‘bring people together and promote community cohesion’ (p.5) even going further to suggest that they are ‘integral to placemaking and economic regeneration’ (p.5) This, I would argue, happens par excellence in places other than national museums. It is fantastic that growing and diversifying audiences is prioritised, but I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed that issues around access haven’t been spelt out – mentioning different types of sensory engagements for all, for example – and importantly physical access into spaces (not least for those with disabilities who don’t seem to get a mention), but emotional/intellectual access (including through interpretation – a word not mentioned at all?) for all too.
I enjoyed the brief summary in Annex B – a history of museums policy – but was disappointed by the comments on Renaissance. ‘The MLA took on responsibility for Renaissance, which never quite took off.’ (p.84) Now I’m a career ‘child’ of Renaissance and the DCMS/DfES Strategic Commissioning programmes (the latter not mentioned in this report). Starting out my first paid role in the sector working for a hub museum in 2005, and then moving to a second one in 2007 enabled the most dynamic, risk-taking and exciting work with local communities that I have been able to enjoy. There was funding. I thought the desire and ability to engage with the most disadvantaged communities was the norm, and that there would subsequently always be funding to support such work. How wrong I was. Renaissance funding was abandoned: ‘The 2009 Selwood report reviewed it and concluded that it had suffered a lack of strategic focus, as well as funding. A new strategy replaced the existing nine regional hubs with 22 partnerships funded on merit.’ (p.84)
There is little about the funding crisis for HEFCE funded university museums too, although a review is promised. The mention of ‘over 60 university courses in the UK specialising in museum practice, producing hundreds of graduates in museum studies each year’ but that are not necessarily providing students with the knowledge needed is significant and points towards a new partnership model perhaps.
So – my main thought – some good stuff, but there’s a still a drastic need for regional funding. Anyway, that will do for now. I’ve just checked into the conference and my hotel and am all ready for #museums2017. Here we go.