Renaissance in the Regions.
A Local Museum replies.

Before I read the Resource report 'Renaissance in the Regions: a new vision for England's Museums. I was broadly in agreement with the ideas behind it. But having read it I am now certain that the strategy it adopts is not the best one for the bulk of Museums in the country. The authors, originally given the task of preparing a strategy for Regional Museums have taken upon themselves the role of creating a new vision for English museums in general. However, their untested strategy of turning the Regional Museums into Regional Hubs is clearly beneficial mainly to the Regional, Designated and University Museums with few benefits and many dangers to the rest of the Museum world.

The most important problems in the Museum world appear from the report to be: the existence of hugely important regional collections funded by bodies without access to regional funding, the general lack of adequate funding for museums and the disorganisation of the Museum sector. It is clear that the needs of the Regional Museums have dominated the thinking of the authors. In order to justify the large amount of money they are to receive the report endows the Regional Museums with leadership of the other Museums in their regions. But, with the weakening of the role of the Area Museums Services, and the failure to do anything to resolve the general lack of funding for Museums the report fails to provide a useful vision for the vast majority of English Museums. The creation of regional hubs, designed at least partly to make the Museum structure more coherent will actually make it more confused as the retained Area Museum Services compete for leadership with the new Regional Hubs. My belief is that the authors should have retained the Area Museum services as the Regional Hubs while proposing a well-funded scheme to support Regional Museums to provide them with the resources to develop into well-funded Centres of excellence.

The problem of extra funding for Regional Museums should, of course, have been sorted out by the Designation scheme but this was so badly botched (insufficient funding and inconsistent selection) that it has been necessary to revisit the topic in this Resource report. And the report if implemented will do that job very well indeed. But it is by no means a report of a new vision for England's Museums; it is a new vision for England's main Regional, Designated and University Museums. I am completely in favour of the need to provide large additional funding for Regional Museums such as Bristol Museum, which have regional responsibilities without regional funding. The idea of the Regional Hub seems on first sight convincing. But the first doubts arise when considering how well your own local Regional Museum might undertake that work. Won't they keep the money? Choose projects that suit them best? Do they, being big organisations know what the small Museums want? Haven't they got their own agendas, own stakeholders that may not be amenable to influence from the wider region? Are their staffs the right people to deliver a service dedicated to the Region rather than the Museum? Have they, in the past, shown any great activity altruistically helping other museums in their area? I am a great fan of what I assume would be my local hub - indeed I used to work there. And while they are helpful as most large museums are, they have shown no propensity for regional leadership nor have had any impact on my museum's development. My experience of large and National Museums both by working for them and working in networks with them, is that they are almost completely absorbed with internal and specialist subject matters. Periodically, they try to put a bit of effort in but soon succumb back to institutional inertia. In short, there is absolutely no evidence that the Regional (nor for that matter the National) Museums are suited to the task that 'Renaissance in the Regions' sets them.

And when you read the report it becomes crystal clear that it will be years before any substantial money and effort comes out from the Regional Hub. The report is full of arguments about 'best practice. Centres of excellence etc'. They make it clear that the first priority is going to be spending the money to get the Regional Museums up to scratch in all the many and various fields in which the Regional Hubs have to be exemplary. Page 98, for instance, says 'ONCE they have achieved excellence in these areas they will THEN be able to help others in their region to improve the quality of users experience.' That 'once' then' combination makes it clear where the priorities are. The report talks of benefits 'cascading down' to other Museums. Isn't the 'Cascade Down' somewhat similar to the Tory 'Trickle Down' effect i.e. a mirage.

The Report also asserts rather than proves the direction of flow of the cascade. Do the facts show that the Regional centres are upstream as far as the river of innovation and excellence is concerned? However, my own experience of the recent DfEE education scheme was that innovation and excellence was as likely to come from Cartwright Hall, and the Whitechapel Gallery as any of the Regional Museums. The large museums are often bogged down in local government bureaucracy while some of the smaller independent Museums have the agility to adapt and innovative swiftly. I think that not only will we not see a Cascade we might find that the flow is attempting a direction in opposition to the natural flow of gravity? If we are to take on board this huge change in structure where it the evidence that it will work?

The report's attitude to the Area Museum Services (AMS) is also perplexing. They appear to need to damn them with faint praise in order for us to accept the need for the Hubs. If Hubs are the best way forward then they should be brave enough to suggest the end of the AMS. For a report that is clear that the Museum sector is bedevilled by a lack of coherency with a multiplicity of competing bodies and networks it is strange that then want to create yet another structure. Instead the AMS is to continue as a 'lean' service. In other words the AMS are going to be kept starved of the cash they need while the real money and power is going into the Hubs. We should, it seems, be happy that they will continue to administer 'small grant' programmes.

But the AMS are the obvious place to hang a regional service on. They have given such good service, such good value for money over the years despite their pitiful budget that one wonders why they have not been given the leadership of the proposed regional structure. Our AMS has been the bedrock of my own Museum's successful development. With their help we have expanded from 5,000 visitors a year to the current 21,000 we see through our doors. They have given advice, trained my staff with free and very low cost training schemes, provided grants to help re-display the Museum, helped set up the web site, helped improve disabled access. They have been in short the only Museum organistion that I can say unequivocally actively SUPPORTED us (as opposed to sending us questionnaires, beautifully produced reports etc. which is the way most other Museum organisations interact with us). Our local Hub, and our National Museum, worthy though they both are, occasionally send representatives to curatorial group meetings and allow low cost or free use of some facilities from time to time. But, frankly, if they disappeared off of the face of the earth tomorrow it would have no effect on my museum (except perhaps that my visitor numbers would go up!).

Given the choice of leadership from my AMS or from my likely regional Hub I therefore know exactly which I would choose. The AMS have dedicated and knowledgeable staff, centrally placed offices, they know our history, care for our future, want to contribute - they are ideally set up to run a Regional policy. The only problems with the AMS have been their lack of money - that the grants have been too small (non-existent at present in fact due to funding shortage) and too low a proportion of project costs.

So, why are AMS sidelined? Why is the section of the report on the AMS so lacking in the gushing excitement of other sections? Firstly, of course they have to be careful that readers don't ask the obvious question - why not put the AMS in charge? The other answer is perhaps that the AMS may tend to be fairly democratic in their working, in their distribution of grant aid - there is a pressure for them to dole out money and advice evenly. The writers of this report clearly want virtually all the money to go the Regional Museums - would AMS, being membership organisations, deliver what they wanted? No, ok then, lets sideline them.

It is interesting to see the working of the collective mind of the authors by looking at the way they divide up the Museum world. Museums are categorized as either 'National', or 'Regional' or 'Designated and University', or if not any of those then you are 'Local and Community'. The 'League of Gentlemen' filmed part of their Christmas show at the Old Operating Theatre Museum last year. And, having read the Resource report I think it must have influenced their regard for the value of the 'local'. This seems such an inadequate term to use for all the local authority and independent museums around the country that one wonders how anyone with real experience of England's museums could use such a term for those museums not fitting into the other three categories? Many of the Museums in this dustbin category have remits which are not mainly focused on the local community and to call them such is to misunderstand and to patronise the Museum world.

Just take my own museum - the Old Operating Theatre Museum. It is a small Museum for which local visitors are an important part but only a small proportion of our visitors partly as we are in a business not a residential area. As the oldest operating theatre in Britain we have a specialist medical and educational audience and get most of our visitors from further afield than the local community, from all over London, Britain and the world. We have no ambition to be designated but are not properly described as a local or community museum. I wonder what is behind this mind-set? Clearly a wish to impact a hierarchical imprint on the Museums diversity. You know where you are with the Nationals at the top, the Regional, Designated, University Museums in the middle and the rest of us below and subservient and 'local'.

It is therefore no surprise that the report supposedly offering a 'Vision' for England's Museum has nothing much to offer the lower tier. The report acknowledges that our concern is for stability of core funding at an adequate level but it reports 'there is at present no particularly convincing case for why the centre should help' (page 108). What about the fact that most Museums are struggling to protect collections and increase access with completely inadequate funds? Never mind, our part in the vision is clearly to show our 'precious things' to the 'local people'. What does the Royston Veysey Museum want with help from outside? For those, who want more we benefit by trickle-down, continue to receive access to an inadequate grants programme and have access to an emasculated Area Museums Service. We are moved one step down the hierarchy, and placed under the guidance of our local hub which has no experience of responding to our needs. So much for vision.

Compare the patronising tone of this section to the great excitement the authors have at the development of the Regional Hubs, The Guggenheim in Bilboa clearly influencing the vision for the Regions. The section on the Area Museum Services is by contrast uninspired and insipid, they are to be in charge of strategy and cross-sectorial working when of course the real power will be with the regional hub. The Designated and University Museums section is again written with marked enthusiasm. Critics of the clearly flawed designation system are put down as being resentful rather than responding to the obvious fact that the designation scheme has no coherent basis under pinning it. And why are the University Museums placed at every point alongside the Designated Museums - what is special about University Museums as opposed to Science Centres, Country life Museums, Transport Museums, War Museums etc.? Some are fantastic others hardly let the public in to visit and are far from exemplary? Why are they especially picked out - the best of them are Designated, the rest of them should be considered along side the rest of the Museum world in the 'Local and Community Museum' category? Or was the composition of the task force the determinant that saw the University Museums elevated preferentially?

It seems to me that this section shows that the Task force has a completely different idea of the Designation scheme than I do. Does the division between the category 'Local and Community' and the Designated and University Museums betray their belief that the Designated Museums scheme has successful designated all Museums and Collections that are of anything more than local and community interest? If so, they are sadly mistaken, out of touch or need to completely revise the Designation scheme so that it takes into designation far more museums than it hitherto has.

The National Museums section is strangely subdued - the structure of Regional Hubs should logically follow from National Hubs. If the aim really is to set up a logical museum structure then the absolute key to it should be the Nationals at the apex of it. This should be the starting point for such a structure and it needs full consideration before the superstructure is decided upon. It may be that this was left out because it was outside of their remit but one wonders if this was helpful because otherwise we would all wake up to the fact that this report is all about creating a rigid hierarchy of Museums. This is a centralising report. The report uses the analogy of the Premier League. It might be more appropriate than they realised. The Nationals, Regional, Designated and University Museums are clearly considered to be the natural members of the Premier League (a severely bloated premier no doubt). But isn't the Premier League an exclusive club which retains to members the vast amount of revenue derived from the millions of football fans around Britain? Doesn't it put teams in the other divisions in massive difficulty? Resource the fat cats of the Football Association? AMS the poor benighted old Football league authority bereft of power and influence and we, the 'Local and Community' Museums play out our Museum lives as happily as Accrington Stanley once did?

In summary, if this report gets the go ahead as it is, it means lean years for the Area Museum Services and the vast majority of Museums. By contrast fat years of development for the Regional services. A simple change to the conclusions will enable the report both to progress the problems of the Regional Museums and benefit Museums in general. Namely. abandon the untested idea of the Regional Museum as the Regional Hub and give the leadership role in the regions to the Area Museum Services where it belongs. This would be equally as helpful to the Government's desire to promote Regional development. By providing extra grant funding to the AMS available to all Museums it will help the channelling of funding on the basis of need and excellence. At the same time large scale extra funding can specifically be earmarked for the development of the Regional Museums. They need not be deflected by the bureaucracy of running the museums in their area - although they could be encouraged to provide homes for the Area Museum Services.

If the report for the creation of regional hubs gets the go ahead I predict that we will be in for years of chaos before anything good comes out of it. Why go through that when we have the infrastructure in place and ready to go?

Write to Resource, the Government and object strongly.


Kevin Flude
Director, the Old Operating Theatre Museum

Director: Kevin Flude Email for Further Information  Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret

Last revised on 21 Jan 2002

 

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