National Museums Liverpool director Laura Pye thinks the statement could be stronger on loss of expertise

Organisations team up to put spotlight on collections at risk

Rob Sharp, Issue 118/11, p11, 02.11.2018
Arts Council England highlights threats to long-term sustainability of institutions from ongoing funding reductions. By Rob Sharp
Arts Council England (ACE) has published a joint statement with other museum organisations to highlight collections at risk.

The September statement underlines the threat to the long-term sustainability of institutions from funding cuts, with organisations including the Museums Association (MA), Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund agreeing to coordinate their approach to key risk areas including lost funding, expertise, Accreditation, collections and buildings.

But some in the sector feel the statement did not go far enough. Laura Pye, the director of National Museums Liverpool, says: “It does talk about the loss of expertise, but I’m not sure it’s strong enough on that. The sector has lost a huge amount of expertise, and the impact of that is not just about collections at risk.

“If we’re no longer contemporary collecting, then our relevance comes under threat, as we’re no longer relevant to the communities we serve.
“Museums are at risk because funding has been reduced. Lack of expertise means we are struggling with the basics of collections management. Our stores are full, and we don’t dispose of things as we’re scared of taking decisions about what we shouldn’t dispose of, because we’ve lost curatorial expertise, so there’s no room to collect anything else.”

The Museums Taskforce, convened by the MA in 2016 in response to the increasingly difficult financial situation faced by museums and chaired by Pye, recommended institutions needed “long-term strategic investment and consistent levels of funding” to carry out their work effectively.
The MA’s Collections 2030 project, meanwhile, is a major research project that launched in September with the aim of understanding the current state of museum collections in the UK, and hopes to identify how to make the most of them.

Loss of knowledge

Simon Brown, the curator at Newstead Abbey and an MA board member, echoes the effect of losing curatorial expertise spiralling out of control.

“There is a loss of expertise among specialist curators who are being lost through redundancy, are retiring and not being replaced, or are in full-time posts that are being reduced to part-time,” he says. “Those remaining have to cover multiple areas.

“If we need to be generalists, with skills that apply across lots of material, the upshot is you lose highly specialist knowledge.

“The attraction of the job is working across several different kinds of material. But you cannot get around the fact that you need specialist knowledge to provide access to collections through a variety of ways. You wouldn’t have a hospital without doctors, and you need to pay curators.”

While saying she was in the “fortunate position of having a parent body [Exeter City Council] that is extremely supportive”, Camilla Hampshire, the museums manager and cultural lead at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, points to the broader economic situation.

“There has never been a greater need for museums and their collections,” she says. “What we need are strong voices at a national level inside and outside government, lobbying for museums and the cultural inheritance they care for, not just in the here and now, but for the future as well.

“When museums do find themselves in a difficult position and collections are at risk, it must be isolating and challenging. So the idea that you can talk to one of those organisations and be heard by a larger range of bodies is probably helpful.”