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Question Time: Museum Development

26 November 13 -- jsuess

At this year's Museums Association conference, ASPIRE pitched and chaired a session on Museum Development, bringing together three MD deliverers from different parts of the country that deliver MD in different ways. The sessions looked at what has been working for regional MD services, where change is needed, and what the future might hold.

We kicked off the session, chaired by our own Lucy Shaw (ASPIRE Manager), by asking our panelists how MD works on their patch. Lucy explained that while each uses different methodologies to support their region - as each serves a very different area in terms of population size, demographics, diversity, travel links, economic development, tourism, etc. - there are areas of synergy, and lessons to be learned from differences.

Our MD Session panelists

Michael Turnpenny, Museum Development Yorkshire
Michael is MD Manager for Yorkshire as part of York Museums Trust. Previously Michael worked for MLA Yorkshire as Regional Museum Advisor. His background is in in heritage and tourism consultancy and has operated within local government, non-departmental public bodies and the private sector.

Michael described the core offer of York Museums Trust MD service as:
  • 'Pre-arranged' and tailored consultancy support from MDOs, other YMT staff and industry experts
  • Short term responsive advice from MDOs
  • Access to training, CPD, peer support
  • Promotion of regional projects
  • Small grants
He explained that a key characteristic of the service is that relationships matter, and a strength of the service is that it offers personalised, ongoing relationships. The fact that the service is embedded within an MPM also means that there is a critical mass of specialist museum professionals to support the service.

You can download Michael's slides here.

Natasha Hutcheson, SHARE Museums East
Natasha has worked in the Heritage Sector for 20 years and has a background in Prehistoric Archaeology. She has worked in MD for 8 years, firstly as the MDO for Norfolk and for the past five years as the MD Manager for the East of England managing the SHARE Museums East MD programme - as part of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

Natasha explained that in the East MD relies on networks, sharing and peer to peer support between the museums in the region, with knowledge being exchanged freely across partners. This atmosphere of knowledge exchange is supported by a calendar of training events, supporting a series of networks, and the production of resources. They also work on cohort projects, for which they will often bring in consultancy to improve local expertise, and ask the cohort to produce resources to share with the wider network.

Natasha also likened MD to yeast, to be kneaded into the dough of museums to help them grow!


Claire Brown
Claire is MD Manager for Museum Development East Midlands and she has managed the regional service since 2008.  Prior to that, for 9 years Claire was the Community Museums Officer (the MDO role) for Leicestershire County Council Museums Service.

Claire explained how in the East they moved from a service with MDOs in each of the region's counties, which was unsustainable, to a central team working with freelancers and consultants to deliver advice, and grants to buy in specialist development support where needed (eg. conservation, business planning, funding bids). She also emphasised the dependence of the service on regional networks, to identify need and offer peer support.

Question Time
Pitched as a Q&A, the main part of the session saw our panel fielding questions from the floor, as the entire sector considers the future of Museum Development.

Some key questions and answers from the day included:

Who should Museum Development be for?
The panel agreed that whereas MD was originally targeted at small museums, now it is medium sized museums that actually show the biggest need, so MD must balance their service to support both medium sized organisations and small independent museums.

Steve Garland noted that MD focused on supporting accredited museums, and wondered about support for museums that fall just outside that definition?
The panel also agreed that accredited museums, or museums that are at least working towards accreditation, should be prioritised before unaccredited museums, not only because MD is predominantly Arts Council funded, but also because it shows the priorities of that organisation, and museums must be 'ready to be worked with' in order to benefit from the service. Michael Turnpenny also noted, that 10 years from now, services such as MD might be very different, looking not just at museums, but at other arts and cultural organisations which have similar needs.

Maurice Davies from the MA noted that all these responses referred to the museums MD should serve, rather than the audiences, and wondered if looking at the audience first would provide direction to MD?
The panel agreed that improving services for audiences was at the forefront of their priorities, and was their purpose for assisting museums, but that the impact that MD has on audiences can be difficult to evaluate and quantify. They also questioned whether it would be either possible or helpful to prioritise who they work with on the basis of their audiences, for example in Yorkshire 12% of museums receive 75% of visits.

Richard Evans from Beamish Museums asked how the various MD services establish the needs of their region, and from where they look to draw the skills they need, does MD look outside the sector for this?
The panel agreed that in the simplest terms they ask the museums! This is done through consultation with networks, but also through the knowledge of MDOs who are on the ground working with museums and have first hand experience of the needs of the region. The panel also agreed that while one focus of their work is sharing skills between the museums within their patch and making the most of skills and knowledge within the sector, they do bring in consultants from outside the museums sector for specific areas of work, such as commercial enterprise and environmental sustainability.

Another colleague asked the panel if they thought that MD was working at the right level, and whether it might might work better as a national service?
The panel agreed that while logistically it is necessary for MD to work on local and regional levels, that on a national level the relationship between MD and accreditation needs to be articulated.

To finish the session Lucy asked the panel where they think MD should be in 2018, or what they think the main challenges are that MD will face between now and 2018?
Michael responded that his aspiration is that MD can support museums in understanding the business of running museums. Natasha questioned what would happen if MD loses its funding, and suggested MD should be thinking about different modes of delivery focused on networks. Clare stated that she felt that the key to MD was strong networks and offering museums access to quality support.

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