Keynote speech at the Museums Association Conference

Museums are doing well.  With around 2500 museums in the country, there are now over 131 designated collections and 1800 Accredited Museums.…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Ed Vaizey

Museums are doing well.  With around 2500 museums in the country, there are now over 131 designated collections and 1800 Accredited Museums. Over 42 million people visited the DCMS sponsored museums last year, up from 20 million in 1990.

While the themes of this year’s conference capture some of the difficult issues that museums are facing, they also show that even in tough times, it is possible to think creatively think about the future.

I want to use today’s speech to set out the future policy direction for museums, particularly in the light of our decision to close the MLA, and the on-going debate about the future of Renaissance. 

I know, as well, that the major concern for all of you is the forthcoming spending review.  We are all aware of the extraordinary economic challenges that we currently face. There is a real need to reduce government spending and each Department will be expected to play its full part.  

The DCMS is not immune from this process, and that is absolutely right. We have already announced that DCMS will reduce its own costs by 50%, and we will be pushing hard to see that the bodies we fund deliver their own administration savings.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that his objective will be to find as much savings as he can from overheads and administration, passing as much as possible down to the front line where it will have most impact.

I cannot predict what the Department’s settlement will be when it is announced on 20th October but, whatever the outcome, Jeremy Hunt and I will do all we can to ensure that the cultural sector retains the capacity to deliver quality services, to innovate, and to grow in the future.

But I cannot do this on my own.  Everyone who works in museums will have to play their part in ensuring that their organisations thrive in the future. Our great museum collections are not the creation of Ministers, politicians, civil servants and Spending Reviews, but of private entrepreneurs and enlightened people with the vision and leadership to create great institutions up and down this country.

But driving forward will take courage and ingenuity. The state cannot afford to subsidise those who are unable to help themselves. All museums need to develop a stronger instinct for partnership, mergers, commercial ventures and new approaches. Those who fund museums and those who govern and lead them need to consider fresh strategies to ensure stability in the years to come.

As I have made clear, the need to focus on front-line delivery has been the guiding principle in our review of public bodies.   We have aimed not only to reduce the number of bodies and their overall cost, but also to increase transparency, accountability and value for money.   It is within this context that we have made the difficult decision to abolish the MLA.

The MLA has carried out valuable work, publishing best practice’ supporting cultural organisations and working collaboratively with local Councils, among the most important sources of funding for museums. It has funded a range of valuable projects, such as Stories of the World.

As a result of all this work, museums are in a much stronger position, and I want to pay tribute to the staff of the MLA who have worked tirelessly to champion museums.  In particular I would like to thank the chairman, Sir Andrew Motion, and the chief executive, Roy Clare, for their enormously helpful approach in recognising the difficulties we face. 

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There has been, and will continue to be, true partnership working, which will ensure as far as possible continuity for the museums sector through this turbulent period - or as Roy might put it, “stormy seas”.
While the MLA will be abolished, Government’s clear support for the museums, libraries and archives will continue. 

Through the Spending Review we will be looking critically at the functions of the MLA to consider what work  will need to stop. Where work will continue, we will consider how it can be effectively delivered by another organisation.

This is not simply about absorbing work, but identifying an organisation that is in a position to engage effectively with museums issues and provide clear leadership and profile for the sector. Where possible, we will look to see how we can ensure that the MLA’s essential expertise and skills are not lost. 

While this is a difficult time, it is also an opportunity to rethink how we target funding, and effectively support museums, libraries and archives.  We must embrace this opportunity to strengthen the place of museums within the wider cultural landscape.

We tend to talk about convergence in the context of television and the Internet.  However, in my view, we are also in need of much greater cultural convergence, with far closer working between museums and with the wider cultural sector as well as with the creative industries. 

Not only is there opportunity for digital convergence, but also much closer working in terms of sharing collections, expertise and audiences. These opportunities are echoed in the recommendations of the Leading Museums Group, led by Professor Tom Schuller and published by the MLA this week. I welcome this work, and am delighted to note that your President has been among those who have worked on it.

As the report notes, this is a time to explore ways to work together both across the museum sector and beyond.
Of course, many of you here today are from independent museums which are vitally important to the economy and to our tourist industry - bringing in around 9 million visitors a year.

These museums will also face pressures over the coming year, but perhaps more than publicly funded museums, they know the importance of being entrepreneurial,. There is real potential here for publicly funded museums to learn from them.

There are, I believe, huge opportunities in networks of strength and expertise  - across cities, across particular collections, across areas of educational expertise.  And as I said earlier - across the creative industries - and let’s see where the conversation might lead.

I am struck by the way the best museums are already extending their reach. The British Museum  is one of the nationals with a well-developed partnership programme involving university, local authority and independent museums. The ‘V&A’s work in Blackpool, Dundee and Sheffield shows a national museum forming stable long-term regional partnerships. The Tate is also using its collection and expertise as a resource for the nation, delivering benefits right across the UK. 

Here in Manchester, the Manchester Museums Consortium is a partnership of nine museums and galleries - all of which have different management arrangements - which share a vision for the city’s residents and visitors.

These museums and galleries work together for no other reason than that it makes sense - they view it as an essential rather than a luxury. And they are stronger for it. I want to see greater appetite for convergence and am determined to enable it wherever possible, for example through funding agreements.

Which brings me to the importance I attach to the future of Renaissance.
Renaissance has already transformed many regional museums services.   I would like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to Chris Smith, who oversaw the introduction of the programme when he was Secretary of State. 

As a result of Renaissance, we have seen a major improvement in education services, in the safeguarding and development of collections, and in the engagement of local communities.  The number of people visiting hub museums has dramatically increased, and Renaissance has built up the profile of regional museums in local government and given museum leaders a new sense of empowerment.

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I want to build on these achievements. I am committed to Renaissance, but my challenge - our challenge - is how we will do more with less.

 There has been an acknowledgement of the need for change for some time.  Last year’s Renaissance Review outlined the programme’s strengths and weaknesses.

The MLA has since set out its own vision, and my discussions with them, with the hub leaders, with the Museums Association and with others in the sector have convinced me that it is the right direction to take.

At the core of this “new Renaissance” is the recognition that it works in partnership with local funding, adding value and investing in transformation and excellence.

Renaissance will continue to use national funding to secure and unlock the potential of the very best regional museums and their collections.

Although detailed plans will need to wait until we know the outcome of the Spending Review, I can tell you now that we will move away from the existing hub network. Instead we will create a group of core museums - a small number of non-national museums with outstanding collections and which offer exceptional services to large audiences.

Alongside this, a proportion of Renaissance funding will be used to create a challenge fund.  This will give all regional museums access to Renaissance funding to drive improvement and innovation. 

Renaissance will also continue to invest in museum development and to maintain support for Accreditation and Designation. It will also back partnerships and convergence on the lines I referred to earlier and it will continue to promote innovative ideas such as “Kids in Museums” and “Museums at Night”.

There is a great deal of passion for Renaissance among museums.  I am confident that it can continue to be a strong and positive programme for regional museums in the years ahead. But Renaissance resources are going to be even tighter in the future and they will only be applied to efficient, imaginative and innovative museums.

Collections policy is another area where there are opportunities for museums to rethink their approach.  Our collections are a precious resource and even through times of economic difficulty the public must have access to them. 

I believe that museums should have an obligation to lend work that they cannot show to other institutions - whether to other museums, schools, universities, or even local businesses.

I know this issue is problematic.  The figures we see quoted do not reflect the nuanced nature of collection storage. Nevertheless I welcome the work in recent years by the Museums Association, a number of museums and the MLA that has helped to bring about a more ambitious approach to refining collections.

I want to encourage bold and innovative thinking which does not shy away from long term loans, object sharing and disposals. I believe there is much more to be done in these areas, including possibly a new approach to acquisition.  

Why not, for example, consider a nationally coordinated approach to exhibitions to achieve a bigger impact and to give the public access to exhibitions of all types from a wide range of museums? This could be a fertile area for convergence, too, and I would welcome and look closely at fresh suggestions you may have.

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To do all this, we need to continue to grow innovative cultural leaders and strong and effective boards and funding bodies. I welcome the MLA’s recent work, publishing examples of new forms of governance. The various forms of trust status are not in themselves a panacea, nor can they be applied everywhere, but I believe that a mixed economy of museums is the right way forward. 

I also applaud the work that has been done by many organisations and individuals to develop the habit and practice of better leadership in the cultural sector.

Among philanthropists in this area, Dame Vivien Duffield has set the bar high, with her generous endowment of the Clore Leadership programme, which has acquired an international reputation for producing Fellows with the potential to pioneer innovation.

I am encouraged by these and other examples, and by the willingness of many of you here today to engage in active debate about ways to further strengthen the capacity of museums. This is indeed a challenge for all of us and I aim to do my bit to keep the spotlight on this area, so vital for the future strength of the sector.

Meanwhile, all museums also need to keep in mind that resilience and creativity run together. I believe there is scope to develop further new ideas and at the same time to significantly increase the level of philanthropy and corporate sponsorship coming in to all our museums.

Efforts in these directions rarely result in quick wins, but require long term relationships, and everyone should see that as part of their role. Bright ideas are not the preserve of a few. We can all have one. There is no point having a talented fundraiser if the chief executives and trustees, or the governing body, do not play an active role in donor cultivation.

The Government wants to revitalise charitable giving in this country. The wider charitable sector is raising its game, and I’m sure the museums sector will continue to do so as well.

The museum sector is not standing still, as we see from the recent reopenings of the Ashmolean and Ulster Museums, and new galleries at the Museum of London and V&A. These will soon be joined by some exciting new developments - the opening of ‘M Shed’, for example,  and a new Museum of Liverpool.

We have the opportunities presented by the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, all with the potential to bring new visitors and audiences.

So despite the economic gloom, there is a real chance for museums to position themselves ever more firmly within the wider cultural landscape. I am confident that I - and my Department - can support you in this effort over the coming years.

Once again, I am delighted to have had the opportunity to speak at this conference and I look forward to working with you in the future. 


Published 5 October 2010