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Museum Movement – From Keepers to Sharers: Evolution or revolution?

Roy Clare on how the world has changed and why museums need to move in step to stay relevant in modern lives: A primary objective of a museum is to keep things but audiences are driving the need for museums to share collections. These are not exclusive choices. The instinct for ‘sharing’ is really little different to that for ‘keeping’ but it is best driven by leaders who understand the necessity to invest in parallel in collections and their audiences

About the author: Roy Clare is director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. Roy joined the Royal Navy as a seaman in 1966, aged 15, and rose to become a rear admiral in 1999. During his naval career he was Commodore of the Britannia Royal Naval College, where he founded the Britannia Museum, opening the college to public visitors for the first time. He left the Royal Navy in 2000 to take up the role of Director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. From 2007 he was chief executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and in 2011 he was appointed director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. In 2016 he was elected Chair of the Board of Museums Aotearoa (the association for New Zealand’s museums). He and his wife hve now decided to return to the UK to rejoin their family who live in England. Roy is planning a sabbatical during 2017 to undertake a long-postponed maritime research project.

Museums have always been about their collections; early museums began as the private collections of wealthy individuals. The oldest public museums opened in the 15th Century, while many of today’s famous museums were established in the 18th Century, inspired by the Age of Enlightenment. Material culture in all its forms has been acquired and cared for in institutions of all sizes and specialisms ever since. The Victorians lent added impetus to the desire to collect, with many institutions adopting the habit in an era before sustainability became an issue. The idea to conserve artefacts, to keep them for posterity and to display them for public edification remains a strong and enduring instinct in many cultures across the world.

That continuity of purpose is apparent today, with many new museums opening and many mature institutions undergoing redevelopment. But anyone responsible for shaping the course for a modern museum is acutely aware of a major change in the operational context.

In recent years, and particularly in the past two decades or so, the range of audiences and the scope of their expectations have changed substantially. Once, it was sufficient to throw open the doors and let some people in. Those who entered generally perceived museums as a bit special, as places of learning and reflection; children were to be ‘seen and not heard’; ‘warders’ were on hand to regulate noise and restrain the exuberant. Relatively little effort was made to attract so-called ‘non-traditional’ visitors and as a result the demographic profile of those who came was from a predictably narrow field.

Then three things happened:

• First, Disney came on the market with an entirely new style and scale of interpretation – with theme-parks and worlds of adventure and discovery – in California, Florida and then in Paris. The style caught on: story-telling started to use technology; people loved becoming immersed in the themes, and saw themselves as part of the production.

• Secondly, the rapid spread of internet technology made it possible for museums to create a web presence that offered entirely new opportunities. Collections and archives could be accessed from home; entire catalogues could be published; Web 2.0 made it possible for people to respond, share views, make their own on-line collections and be part of building the database and creating the narrative. ‘Crowd-sourcing’ became part of the pattern of curation.

• Thirdly, with the spread of the political principles of social democracy came better standards of living, more leisure time, but ever-wider choices for consumers. Even subsidised museums, free of admission charges, find that competition is a key issue.

Suddenly, museums are centre-stage marketing operations. They are competing for visitors and pressing people for secondary-spend; the space they inhabit is crowded with good options and the tourism spectrum has expanded at breath-taking speed. At first, technology was seized on as the new way of doing everything; museums installed digitally interactive displays without thinking through the consequences for collections. Around the turn of the new millennium it was starting to become clear that visitors still wanted the ‘real-thing’ and new and better digital strategies began to evolve. But one genie remained firmly out of the bottle: people wanted to be part of production. And the coincident political and social imperatives to nourish audiences for state-funded, subsidised museums led to a drive to broaden the demographic base of participation.

Now, looking back over the past dozen years it is possible to track the trends. Audiences have broadened; their expectations have expanded; digital communications have driven and are continuing to drive new demands; the management and development of digital content has become more important than the creation of new websites. Depending on your point of view, we have seen a revolution in the quality and range of display and programming; or we have been participating in a steady evolution. Either way, museum planning and programming feels really different now.

Collections – The Point of Difference
For museums to retain their value as places of learning they must retain the confidence and trust of those who visit their sites or use their on-line resources. Surveys of public opinion in the UK confirm that museums largely succeed in retaining trust, but there is no scope for complacency. The collections are the primary point of difference with – say – Disney; the collections drive the purpose and vitality; feed the programmes and displays; and attract the sustainable markets. Museums that have neglected to invest in their collections and retain those members of staff who really know about them have lost their momentum and their public support.

Even in the latest phases of the digital era there is still reassuring evidence that people want access to the ‘real thing’. They like to read about things on-line, to identify collections through catalogues and other materials. If anything, these virtual experiences appear to spark a stronger desire to commune with the actual objects and to have access to original sources. Collections seem to remain fundamentally important; people don’t wish to be fobbed off by replicas and arms-length reproductions. To breathe oxygen into their collections and to deliver strongly for the public museums need trained minds and know-how among their paid staff and volunteers.

Even where this principle is accepted, museums face real issues over sustainability. Professional assessment shows that the costs of storage are high and still climbing. Many museums have huge reserve collections; and many of these continue to grow as the habit of collecting persists. A few years ago leading directors in the UK gave their names to a paper entitled ‘Too Much Stuff?’ which examined the processes and described the necessity for new approaches in order for publicly-funded museums to remain affordable in difficult economic circumstances.

As one of the vital professional responses, the ethical code that guides the UK’s museums was changed in a way that now permits discernment and encourages a more rounded approach to collections development. Museums may continue to acquire objects for their collections, but they are also supposed to consider de-accessioning, dispersal and various forms of disposal – even including sale.

This switch in emphasis is not without its challenges and detractors. Wise Boards are making haste slowly, but the tempo will need to step up if museums are to remain financially viable into the future. New thinking and tough decisions lie ahead for many collections and there is likely to be a need for more museums to consider merging and reducing the overheads of their operations. Logistics are an early potential win, for example combining storage facilities and sharing the costs of collections stewardship. Commercial logistics expertise has something important to offer here, with the development of existing wholesale and retail and distribution technologies for tracking and managing items in museums stores; there is scope for partnership and sponsorship.

Businesses – or Business-like?
Some museums are further ahead than others, but the answers to solving the storage challenges also need to cater for the expectations of audiences who expect to see more and engage more. Museums can now communicate about the opportunities for accessing the collections in new ways – for example on-line. These measures can offset the criticism levelled against museums that can only display very small percentages of their total holdings.

Web-based catalogues and resources appear to extend the reach of collections held in reserve. It is now increasingly valid to claim that all collections are available for research or access via wider range of media. However, as recognised above, these means are not a substitute for first-hand access. In addition, museums find that remote storage – for example, in less costly locations – can look good on the balance sheet but remain an unattractive option for many audiences. There are instances where collections assigned to deep storage have simultaneously become more in demand because of the coincident availability of digital records.

Retrieval costs have to be weighed alongside capital investment if audiences are not to be disappointed when access is difficult or practically impossible. Among new and stronger influences has been a change in the expectations of those who govern museums. In times past, Boards would have focused on scholarship, curatorship and learning, but now governors look for a well-managed business too.

A number of leading museums and many smaller ones have appointed Directors with wider backgrounds in leadership, commercial enterprise and tourism more generally. In countries such as the UK, with Lottery programmes that deliver capital grants, the legal and moral expectations of the lottery fund distributors have added to the pressure to organise for efficiency and performance.

Many Boards and senior managers in museums have become recognised for their leadership and planning skills, and for their acumen in shaping entrepreneurial programmes, investing in infrastructure and – in turn – fuelling audience appetites for excellent experiences. The museum landscape in many countries has been transformed, with dusty and sleepy institutions replaced by sparkling new spaces and glitzy exhibitions. Not everyone has been comfortable with some of the implications.

The balance of investment has shifted towards administration. As a result, there is evidence that curator-skills have been eroded in some places. The needs of the collections are at times perceived to be taking second place to the priorities set by commercial goals, designers and their aesthetic needs; displays are in places dictated by their elegance rather than their narrative impact.

Striking a Balance
As in most things in life, balance is everything. Museums need to act like museums – retaining their authority as museums – and take care to avoid the ultimately futile tail-chase involved in trying to copy Disney. Audiences are in any case a discerning and prevailing presence; they can tell the difference and they can express their views through the marketplace. So museums need to be business-like, but they are not conventional businesses, except to the extent that they need to be sensitive to their markets. They have to manage a financial bottom line in parallel with maintaining a strong sense of social added-value. Many museums have charitable status – as part of the so-called ‘third-sector’ – but they are assuredly not well-described as ‘not-for-profit’!

The era of the curator-director has been followed by that of the leader-director, some of whom, but not all, are also curators or other professionals with museum backgrounds. The complexity of organisations with more than one bottom line has triggered a need for training and professional development. Even if very well-qualified academically, the gifted-amateur is now much less likely to be attractive to a governance Board searching for candidates to lead, manage and inspire complex bodies.

In turn, museums are recognising the need to invest in their middle-level staff, so that curators and other museum professionals can acquire the necessarily wide span of administration and business skills on their way up the promotion ladder. This paradigm can be seen as being at odds with earlier practice, when curators acquired a deep, specialist knowledge of their collections. The unintended consequences should be apparent in the process of managing risk and assessing overall performance. Boards need to be on the lookout for and consider ways to mitigate the erosion of competence and quality among curators and other specialists. The health of museums in decades to come will depend on the sustainability of genuine expertise in collections balanced alongside the generation of the most capable management.

Keeping Versus Sharing?
As we have noted, a primary objective of a museum is to keep things. Some great museums still describe their curators as ‘keepers’. Conservation and preservation are indeed vital and the care of collections remains a primary feature in the governing instruments for most museums. But the evidence is that market forces are now a dominant pressure, with audiences driving the need for museums to share collections.

How is this dichotomy managed; can keeping be balanced against sharing and giving access; and can the costs of maintaining an equilibrium be sustainable? These are really big questions at the very core of museums and are disciplined in four main ways:

• Leaders – including governors – need to maintain a strategic focus on collections as the defining ‘point of difference’. The reputation of a museum depends upon this. The implication is that collections and their management need to be on the centre-line of thinking; they are not back-of-house; they are the museum.

• Secondly, the expertise of curators needs to be shared – communicated – in person, in print and digitally. Curators who cannot communicate need to be encouraged and assisted to develop their skills; hobby-led research and vanity publishing have no place in a modern context. It is in the public interest that curators are front-line people – the audiences are the objective.

• Thirdly, few museums can afford to maintain exclusive curatorial expertise without partnering. Other museums and most universities are among the most attractive and natural partners. Curators need to have time for research and study; universities need projects for students to undertake. These characteristics enhance the potential of partnership. There are now a number of examples of collaboration working in the common interest. Ideas around sharing need to extend beyond traditional notions of exhibitions and displays.

• Audiences now expect on-line engagement and opportunities to interact and co-produce. Crowd-sourcing is acknowledged widely as a highly-productive technique for developing collections. Museums with lecture programmes and curator-led discussions and features find ready enthusiasm from the public, and enjoy a well-earned reputation for cherishing their collections.

Attention to the breadth of audience leads towards a conclusion that some elements of the delivery need to extend beyond the walls of the museum, into the communities and across cities and towns to overcome barriers to access.

There will be some who argue that sharing reduces the capacity to keep. Keepers have in a sense always shared, but what’s different now is the volume of the market demand. Cerebral monographs on specific topics were once an acceptable means of sharing: the sometime esoteric nature of the communication was not a drawback. Now, the scale of the opportunities and the strength of the imperative to reach out are driving much greater levels of demand on the skills and capacities of curators. Traditionally sleepy backwaters have given way to sharper expectations; and these need to be managed and led sensitively if the market itself is not to destroy the very strengths that make museums admirable and inspire people to trust them, admire them and use them.

Leading for Change
If keeping and sharing are to be in harmony museums need to be clear about their values. Collections merit respect and investment; audiences have to be uppermost, with specific goals to engage more people from ever-wider backgrounds. These two dimensions – collections and audiences – define the performance of a modern museum. In practice, keeping and sharing need to be indivisibly part of the same strategy; programmes that deal only with public exhibitions are unlikely to succeed.

Boards and key leaders responsible for strategic planning in museums should identify the importance of collections and their audiences in a consistent and rational way that accords each an equal status in terms of investment and delivery. The professional capacities of staff of museums should be developed in a business-like fashion. Terms like ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house’ can be misleading, and create a false impression that curatorship and professional know-how are not ‘front of house’ and are therefore in some way inferior or less pressing.

A museum with weakened expertise in collections is one already in decline. Sooner or later, audiences will detect the difference and resent the deterioration. Shows and programmes that are bought in from third-party developers are an early sign of corrosion; museums need to invest sufficiently in their teams to be confident about the quality and attractiveness of home-grown productions. Of course, some external loans and an occasional selection of high-grade exhibitions from outside are all part of building the reputation of a great museum. The important point is that the home team really do need to be capable of creating resources alongside those from elsewhere.

A business-like goal is to be really clear about the target market; and another is to invest in ways that assure a positive return. The leadership team has to insist on having access to information about the performance of their museum. The costs and benefits of operations can be represented in various ways. Each museum will be different, but the principles are that a values-led organisation will learn to manage sensitively and to understand and respond to audience expectations and feedback.

Investment in shows and programmes should be gauged around metrics for their impact. Cultural, artistic and learning objectives should focus both on the intrinsic value and on the expectation of instrumental benefit. Research shows us that engagement with culture and the arts transforms lives and strengthens individuals and their communities. Places can be shaped by investment in cultural and sporting pursuits and museum leaders should advocate that funding bodies share an understanding of the potential for positive social outcomes. This is a valid objective in all cities and towns where inter-cultural relationships are part of the economic model.

These issues call for experienced governance Boards and imaginative executive leadership; equally vital is a work-place that recognises the importance of investing in people. Leadership occurs – or should occur – at every level in an organisation. Training and development of staff needs to be a habit and the results should be reviewed regularly so that the improvement is structured and so that gaps can be spotted early and plugged. New blood is necessary from time to time, but institutions should plan to promote from within whenever it is reasonable to do so. The pay-back on training can be realised in a surprisingly short time.

Bottom Line
The instinct for ‘sharing’ is really little different to that for ‘keeping’, but it is best driven by leaders who understand the necessity to invest in parallel in collections and their audiences. These are not exclusive choices. The market has changed and museums need to evolve in step to stay relevant in modern lives. The evidence is that people would like to become engaged and museums can inspire them. Communities, towns and cities that are served by art, culture and creativity are likely to be better places in which to live, work and enjoy life. The key is to understand the evolutionary forces and to shape strategies that place the market first. In that way, as museums evolve, ‘keepers’ become ‘sharers’.

Roy Clare
Director, Tāmaki Paenga Hira – Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand

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