Another Highland Clearance?

This month’s Museums Journal (UK) reports on the Highland Council’s public consultation on, among others, the potential for closing museums to achieve budget savings.

There is an air of simplism about how the questions are put to the public that raises concerns over what value – if any – the council assigns to museums. ‘The Council would continue its obligation to look after collections that have been gifted over the years,’ the questionnaire explains when asking ‘Can we reduce this provision [of £1.5 million for museums]?’  As long as the collection is still cared for, this appears to say, all is well.

I do not fault this or any other council for seeking ways to save funds in these difficult financial times.  However, merely presenting museums as an expenditure is to oversimplify matters and does appear to be the ‘abdication of responsibility’ that the SNP councillor John Finnie is reported to have called the consultation.

On the other hand, perhaps the museums sector is partially to blame, too.  I, for one, am still to find a study of the sector’s quantified contribution to society.  For interpretation, Sam Ham and Betty Weiler published a study in 2007 that gave a value to interpretation’s contribution to the experience of visitors (Journal of Interpretation Research 12 (2), p. 5-24).  If nothing else, the study provides a serious argument to consider when funding cuts are made.

Also, accreditation is not as widely spread as one would wish, nor perhaps as user-focussed.  The UK’s Museums, Libraries and Archive Council’s accreditation scheme aims at ‘minimum standards’ at this point, and only about 1800 museums are accredited of the ‘thousands’ that the MLA reports exist.  The MLA’s definition of museums also indicates a possible flaw in the weighting: ‘[Museums] are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens…’

Perhaps where museums fail to prove their worth to funders is in how they ‘make accessible’ their collections.  Amid specialist interest in collections and the need to care for artefacts, visitors often seem an afterthought.  How else do we explain for example the emergence as recently as 2003 of an organisation like Kids in Museums that was created in response to the lack of user-friendliness of a museum?

Needless to say, I do not think museums are a luxury that can – or should – be cut when times are rough, even if museums could to better.  There is no doubt in my mind that the loss of museums will  be sourly felt in many areas of society.  I hope that the people in the Highlands will participate in this consultation, and tell their council as much.  After all, where else but to the Highland Folk Museum can locals and visitors alike go to learn about the vibrant communities that once dotted the glens?  Neither the empty mountain sides nor the collections cared for out of sight will tell you anything about their story.

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