A View from the Outside: The Arts Council’s Review of Museum Research

I have recently read the Arts Council England ‘Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries’, compiled in September last year just before the Arts Council took over the responsibilities of the now-disbanded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.  The review was part of an endeavour to ‘understand the needs and priorities of the sectors’ by the Arts Council.

It made quite interesting reading for two reasons.  Firstly, I had my doubts about how easily museums would sit within the fold of what continues to be called the ‘ARTS’ Council.  The review is very much written from an arts perspective, using ‘us and them’ style language that is slightly unsettling for ‘us’ on the museums side.  There is an evident and welcome willingness to engage with and represent the museum sector also, and yet I still wonder how much the continued and predominant use of the term ‘arts’ in the council’s strategic and even grant documents might over time privilege practices that are not necessarily best suited to museums.

On the other hand, the review highlights parallels in the aims and approaches of the previously distinct sectors, which are celebrated as promising starting points to bring them all under one roof.  Here the report becomes interesting for its outsider scrutiny of some of our practices and the ways in which they are – or are not – backed up by research.  The area I was particularly intrigued by was the reflections on stakeholder engagement.

The review acknowledges the fact that museums have responded to the ‘growing community engagement agenda’ (10), but notes that this has been primarily through consultation, rather than engaging stakeholders in interpretation, and giving them control (25).  Most crushingly, in my opinion, the report comes to the conclusion that while there is a lot of quantitative evidence about visitor or participant numbers, there is far less qualitative data (44).  In fact, the review notes a series of substantial methodological flaws in many evaluation studies, ranging from premature study completion (i.e. surveys finish before the project has come to an end) to ‘self-reported accounts of the difference made’ (45).  They also highlight that a large percentage of studies focus on one-off projects, producing data that cannot be generalized, and which thus cannot be used to inform practice on a day-to-day basis (45).

The report hints at the fact that funders are probably partially to blame for this state of affairs (9).  It suggests a commitment to changing evaluation criteria from numbers to capturing return on investment [1], which will certainly have a major impact on how museums will do things in the future.

Overall, the review didn’t really surprise me.  I have for a while now lamented the fact that especially within interpretation there is a lot of feel-good sharing of projects with very little critical analysis.  Practitioners say they are ‘of course’ involving communities and stakeholders, but this review confirms what Bella Dicks found in her study of Rhondda Heritage Park – that stakeholders are consulted and mined for content, but not granted any meaningful input.  The good thing of the current economic crisis and the dwindling funding is that increasingly, we will be asked to really involve stakeholders, and to prove qualitatively what difference we’re making – not in our own opinion, but in the opinion of our stakeholders: this review makes this very clear.  It’ll be a challenge, not merely because of the fact that we don’t know yet what methods to use.  It’s something I’m grappling with at the moment as I seek to measure public benefit delivery through interpretation.  But at last we’re starting to move (or be pushed) in the right direction.  No doubt there will be a few casualties in the shape of long-cherished beliefs and many bruised egos along the way, but in the end it’ll be an immensely good thing for our profession and the sectors we serve.


[1] The report specifically mentions contingent valuation, which is basically a method to reveal the monetary value of something that doesn’t have a price per se on the market (such as the environment).  Personally, I don’t think this is the way forward to capturing impact, but it is undoubtedly the method that most easily fits with how everything else is captured and decided upon in our current political and economic system.


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