A View from the Chair: Museums Essex

By Philip Wise, Chair of Museums Essex and Heritage Manager at Colchester + Ipswich Museums

I have been fortunate to have worked in Essex for nearly 22 years, arriving in September 1998 as the Curator of Archaeology at the then Colchester Museums. One of my first memories is attending a meeting of the Essex Museum Workers Group (EMWG) with my colleague Tom Hodgson at Braintree Town Hall. Since then I have remained actively involved with museums in Essex, serving for a time as the Secretary of the EMWG and latterly becoming a founder trustee of its successor Museums Essex in 2014. Eighteen months ago I became the Chair of Museums Essex.

This time last year it would have been impossible to predict the position in which we now find ourselves. The withdrawal of Essex County Council from a strategic role in supporting the museum sector in Essex, and in particular hosting the Essex Museum Development Officer post, was a nasty surprise and it took considerable efforts behind the scenes and much negotiation with interested parties, including Museums Essex, to put in place new arrangements. I am delighted that we have appointed Beth Wilkey as the new Essex MDO and already, in only two months, I hope that you will agree with me that she has made a big impact in the county.

The other major event in recent months has, of course, been the COVID-19 pandemic which has affected museums as all other areas of our cultural life in Essex. For many of you the impact has been very severe, not just in terms of being unable to open with the consequent loss of visitor income but also in the lack of opportunity for both volunteers and paid staff, many of whom have been either furloughed or are working from home, to meet together in person at the museums they love. Although some are now reopening well into the peak visitor season, the effects of COVID-19 will be felt for quite some time.

How do I see the future of museums in Essex? It is clear to me that the lesson of both the new arrangements for museum development in the county and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that we need to work together and engage with others at both a county and national level.

It goes without saying that I would like to see as many museums in the county as possible joining Museums Essex. Your subscriptions, deliberately kept as low as possible, contribute directly to the MDO’s salary and your numbers strengthen Museums Essex’s mandate to speak up on your behalf. I hope that, despite the difficulties that some may face, all existing members will renew their membership in the autumn and that we might be able to gain some new members as well.

At a national level, there is the Arts Council’s Accreditation scheme. Accreditation provokes a range of reactions out there in the museum world. Some feel that Accreditation is not for them, regarding it as being a very bureaucratic process with no tangible benefits. Others recognise the importance of Accreditation as a means of raising standards and promoting the value of museums in society. 

It will come as no surprise I’m sure to learn that I am firmly in the latter camp and am a passionate supporter of Accreditation. In this I can claim some knowledge as I have engaged with Accreditation in three ways: as a former member of the Accreditation Committee which makes award decisions on applications (or returns) from museums across the UK, as a senior manager in a large local authority museum service who is responsible for ensuring that his museums remain within the Accreditation Scheme and as a Museum Mentor who encourages and supports two self-funding independent museums in achieving Accreditation.

So why is Accreditation important, particularly at the present time? Essentially it ensures that a museum meets nationally agreed standards and, as a result, is starting from a strong position to survive a crisis like COVID-19. Part of this, of course, is the ability of museums within the Accreditation scheme to apply for funding from Arts Council England and other funding bodies. But I do think that there is more to it than this. It is also about being part of a wider community with the opportunities that this brings to learn from each other and share experiences. One of the MDO’s primary roles is to support museums which are either seeking to become Accredited or are in the process of re-applying for Accredited status. From the outset Beth has therefore been paying particular attention to this aspect of her work.

Finally, please do keep in touch with me as your chair. I am always interested to learn what your museum is doing and either Beth or I will try to visit as many of you as possible in the coming months.

Philip Wise

You can contact Philip via email: philip.wise@colchester.gov.uk