Government review of UK museums

November 14 2017

Image of Government review of UK museums

Picture: DCMS

The UK government's Department for Culture has published a review into the nation's museums. It's called the Mendoza Review, and it's very disappointing. It's full of jargon (the dreaded "upskilling" features), and makes few useful and specific recommendations beyond urging institutions to 'work together' with each other and 'strategise'. Most worryingly of all, it ignores many elephants in the room: there is nothing meaningful on Brexit, nothing serious on how to get artworks out of storage and on display; and the problem of deaccessions from local authority museums is ignored. Perhaps a reason the report is so weak becomes clear when we look at the team behind it; they're almost all current or former museum employees. In other words, the report is entirely 'sector led'. What it really needed was some outside voices, not least someone to properly represent museum users.

I'll focus on three areas here briefly. First, the report appears to encourage a fresh look at deaccessioning. Here's an excerpt from page 45:

At the other end of the collections cycle is disposal or transfer. Many museums would like to rationalise their collections in an ethical way to improve collections management; make best use of the most important and interesting objects; and reduce pressure on storage. Guidance does exist on making appropriate disposals: the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics sets out strict guidelines55 and the process is governed by ACE’s Disposals Toolkit. Disposal or transfer is often prevented by lack of resources, acceptable process in the individual museum, or confidence: museums reported they would like explicit ‘permission’ to make disposals. The Review team suggests that museums should have an active programme of assessing and, where appropriate, rationalising their collections. [My italics]

The really bold thing would have been to explore how local authority collections should be nationalised, to prevent cash-strapped councillors selling local treasures.

Secondly, the report ignores one of the issues of concern to the art historical community at the moment - image reproduction fees. The only mention of these fees is a condoning reference to museums using them to raise revenue:

Digitised collections offer new opportunities for both research and commercial purposes. For research, digitisation offers the opportunity to look at metadata in new ways, link collections from disparate sources, and conduct new forms of analysis. Museum trading arms are increasing their use of digitised collections to generate income, for example, by licensing images from the collection, while also allowing free use for educational and research purposes. Art UK, an online centralised platform for art museum collections, is exploring how it can offer a licensing service to generate income for its members. 

Finally, the report appears to recommend that 'good cause' funding from the the Heritage Lottery Fund (which traditionally adheres to the principle of 'additionality'; that is, the money should only be in addition to regular government funding, not in place of it) should be reviewed:

HLF should focus its museums funding on capital projects with a significant impact, whether major transformation or much-needed repair of valuable buildings. It should consider how to interpret ‘additionality’ in the contemporary context where museums need to use investment to tackle buildings conservation and maintenance backlogs, attract and maintain new audiences, and generate new funding streams. 

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