Thought and Notes: Museums Association Conference 2015

MA Conference 2015a

Sharon Heal presents statistics from the Code of Ethics consultation

Earlier this month, I attended my fourth  Museums Association conference. Several things struck me over the course the event. Firstly, the people care about making the sector better and stronger. Secondly, that we don’t have the answers on how to do that yet. Thirdly, more change is coming.

Big themes this year were ethics, diversity and the continuing changes happening in our sector.
The revised Code of Ethics was voted in. If you haven’t read it yet, I advise you to do so. Not only is it a cornerstone of accreditation but it’s a living, breathing document that should influence our everyday practice no matter the size of our museum. The code has been compiled in consultation with museum  staff and volunteers across the country. Given recent controversy over sales from collections, it is not surprising that good practice round disposals continues to be a key element. Reflecting 21st century practice the code also covers sponsorship and recommends that museums seek to work with partners whose priorities match their own.
Museums Change LivesSeveral sessions looked at diversity in the workforce. This is a debate that has been going on for several years and there are no easy answers. Many museums are actively looking for ways to change. Apprenticeships and other work-based training schemes do seem to have had some success, although it is too early to tell if the individuals taking part will continue in museum careers. Some people are concerned that creating additional temporary entry-level jobs when the sector is so competitive is a mistake. I believe that this is a debate that will continue for quite some time, but that it’s good that museums are trying new and different ways to recruit.
With councils being forced to tighten their purse-strings even more, and the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up at the end of the month, it sometimes feels like there’s little time or money for anything creative to happen in museums. However, there were some excellent case-studies which are well worth checking out. For example, Richard Gough from Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust talked about corporate volunteering, which is something our own Museum of Power have good experience with. The Conflict Resolution session included some heart-breaking stories of how museums have the power to knit communities back together, such as the Historical Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina in Sarajevo, National Museums Northern Ireland and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. However, the session that really blew me away was “More Than Reminiscence” by Tunbridge Wells Museum and Canterbury Christ Church University. They’ve been doing some fantastic work with dementia groups and their model is easy and low-cost to follow. Have a look at their tool-kit and see if it’s something that you could use with your own collections.

#FundingWeek: Essex County Council’s Cultural Grants

Re-Imagining Egypt workshop

Re-Imagining Egypt workshop at Saffron Walden Museum, funded by the Culture in Essex Small Grant Scheme

Today’s guest post is by Andrew Ward, Cultural Development Officer at Essex County Council.

“Essex County Council manages two grants schemes, the Culture in Essex Small Grants and the Cultural Strategic Grants. The Culture in Essex Small Grants offers up to £2500 for heritage and arts projects delivered in Essex (excluding Southend and Thurrock) with deadlines of 31st March and 31st October. The scheme does not support applications for purely capital costs and is more geared towards enabling community focused programmes of work to take place in Essex. Local authorities cannot directly apply (although Friends groups and project partners can) and any projects with schools need to be extra-curricular.

Previous successful applicants include The Munnings Art Museum where funding was awarded to develop a nature trail on the grounds and the Saffron Walden Museum Society to support a community collection project. Saffron Walden Museum said:

“The museum is delighted to have been awarded a small grant. The additional funding will enable the Museum to dedicate the time and resources needed to work with the community of Uttlesford to create an exhibition that really brings to life the stories of numerous local people’s collections and to share these stories with the visiting public.”

Another strand of the small grants is the Personal Development Grant. This is aimed at individuals and contributes up to £250 towards personal development activities including field research, continuous professional development and project feasibility trials.

The Cultural Strategic Grants offer £2500 and above to cultural organisations who are able to deliver strategic programmes of cultural work across the county.

Only organisations can apply and need to be constituted, have appropriate health and safety and equality policies in place and have audited accounts.

The scheme is open for submissions from July 2015, with a deadline of 30th September 2015 to support programmes of work which would be delivered in the financial year of April 2016/17.

Full details of both schemes can be found here and for any queries please contact Andrew Ward, ECC Cultural Development Officer, 033301 32470,

Who Decides What’s Ethical?

Debating modern ethics

Discussing the Ethics Review at the Museums Association Conference, 2014

There’s been a lot of debate in the press about museums selling objects from their collection and if it is okay for them to do so. You’ll have heard quotes from the museum sector saying that the sale of a certain Egyptian statue was “unethical”, but what does that mean? Who decides what is ethical and what do they know about the reality of running a museum? And surely any “Code of Ethics” is aimed at the big national or local authority museums and doesn’t apply to small, volunteer-run museums?

Actually, the Code of Ethics applies to everyone working or volunteering in a UK museum. This is particularly true if your museum is Accredited or might like to be in the future. The current Code was produced by the Museums Association in 2002 after consultation to represent what the sector believed an ethical way of running a museum.

The Code of Ethics is now 13 years old and while it reflected the needs of museums at the start of this millennium, the world has moved on. We’re using digital technology more than ever, including collecting digital artefacts like photographs and sharing our collections and data via the internet. Objects aren’t just acquired through donations and traditional auctions but through sites like eBay. Museums are increasingly working collaboratively with volunteers, artists, vulnerable communities and children, raising issues of copyright, recognition and expectation management. Debates rage in the media about the living wage and zero-hours contracts. Corporations are sponsoring exhibitions, projects and entire museums. With cuts to their basic funding, many museums are under increasing pressure to sell their collection in order to plug budget gaps – their own and those of their parent organisation.

Museums in 2015 are very different to those of 2002, and the Museums Association recognises this. That’s why they’re asking for your opinions. They’ve held regional meetings (some of you will have attended the meeting at Colchester Castle last year), hosted debates at their annual conference and are currently running an online consultation. If you have an opinion on any of these issues, or others that I haven’t touched on, please do take part. It doesn’t matter if you think the current rules are too strict or not strict enough – share your view! This is your opportunity to be heard. If you don’t take the time to answer these 24 questions, you can’t complain that only the voices of “big” museums are heard.

The Museums Association Ethics Consultation is open until Friday 13th February.