This year’s Museums Association Conference, which took place at the Birmingham ICC in November, is the largest get-together of its kind in the UK. With a firm focus on the domestic musuems sector, it is an essential event in the diary for those involved in the museum and heritage industry, acting as a bellwether for UK museums. And on size alone, the MA Conference 2015 demonstrated that the sector is healthy, if not booming. Delegate numbers increased by more that 40 per cent to approximately 1,700, up from 1,200 at the 2014 conference, and the number of commercial stands in the exhibition hall was up 15 per cent year on year. Some of this may be down to location – Birmingham is perfectly situated for access and the cultural vibrancy of the city certainly played its part in attracting delegates. But perhaps there was a real feeling of – whisper it – hope, if not optimism, which could not be put down to setting alone.
“Let’s stop complaining,” was the advice from the V&A Martin Roth, in the director’s round-table conversation to conference, playing devil’s advocate and challenging the prevailing view of some in the industry to see their glass as half full. Yet given the UK government’s impending comprehensive spending review, much of the discussion – in the main hall and beyond – inevitably revolved around predictions on the size and depth of the government cuts to come. The debut keynote from Peter Luff, recently arrived head of Heritage Lottery Fund, attempted to address some of these concerns with a range of new measures to support heritage organisations. HLF has long been an essential element in large-scale improvement projects, enabling fantastic cultural institutions to invest for the future. Let’s hope its plans to encourage more young people to engage with museums will have a similiar transformative effect.
The silver bullet – internationalism
From our position next to the Museums Practice Workshop room 2 in the exhibition hall, it was clear that the message of internationalism – or more specifically UK soft power overseas – was reaching every corner of the conference. UKTI hosted an international reception in conjunction with the Museums Association, with their eye on strategic partnerships and international working in the US. In the main hall, the directors’ round-table discussion touched on the subject. When David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool and current MA president, was asked: “What one thing would you change about museums today?”, he replied: “Make UK museums more international in outlook.” Meanwhile, the opening MP Workshop in Room 2, ‘The Economics of Touring Exhibitions: Models for Practice’, attracted a large and attentive crowd. Among the very solid practical advice, once comment stood out: the advice of Touring Exhibitions Group‘s Charlotte Dew that “touring internationally can be much more sustainable” from an economic position than its domestic equivalent. Although nothing new, with a government focus on export and trade ties beyond Europe, could internationalism really be the silver bullet the museums industry is looking for to fill gaps in its finances?
An eye on museum storage
Driving home from Birmingham on the Friday evening, 6 November, I caught a piece about museum ethics on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, introduced by Kirsty Lang. The discussion was pegged to Shell’s sponsorship the Science Museum’s climate science gallery, and to the Museums Association Conference – in particular MA president David Fleming’s advice to conference that museums will need to be a little more choosy about who they take money from in future. “As public expenditure reduces … we become more reliant on private sector sponsorship,” he pointed out. “There needs to be clarity on what is expected from both sides.” “But who decides what is ethical?” Kirsty asked. “Publicly funded organisations need to be clear what they stand for. We’re talking about transparency and accountability… we’re looking for best practice and morality. That’s what ethics is all about. If the public decides that something dodgy is going on, that’s probably because of unethical behaviour.”