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Posts Tagged ‘budget cuts’

Recently, Britain’s Prime Minister once again tried to enthuse people for his ‘Big Society’ idea.  In the words of the Big Society Network:

‘The Big Society is a society in which individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood.’

Or to put it simply, Mr Cameron wants people to volunteer.  His vision is indeed big: volunteers should run post offices, even transport services, and… museums.

Of course, at the same time as volunteers are called upon to take over what used to be the state’s responsibility, the British Government has introduced the most severe budget cuts in decades.  Especially museums, always vulnerable to decreasing funding streams, soon will no longer have a choice but replace paid staff with volunteers.  In the eyes of the Government, that seems to be a good thing.

But is it?  Are museums really best run by volunteers?  Is our heritage best looked after by volunteers?

Many museums already rely on volunteers to deliver their services.  The volunteers they get, of course, tend to be predominantly retired, professional white women, with the occasional retired, professional white man put into the mix – and this is after dedicated paid staff spent considerable time on recruiting volunteers.

The issue with this is obvious.  Unless these volunteers have the necessary training in interpretation, museum management and audience development, to name but a few, they are unlikely to present programmes that are relevant to other sectors of the community, or to attract other volunteers from different backgrounds.

This highlights the next point: getting volunteers with the right skills set can be a challenge.  Most museums are happy to train their volunteers, usually – because of budget constraints – through on the job training provided by paid staff who have years of knowledge and experience.  Imagine the kinds of highly skilled roles volunteers will be asked to fulfill if they have to run a museum or heritage site on their own: conservation, commercial management, interpretation… Mostly these are specialist roles that require specialist education.  The people that have these skills will want to get paid, not volunteer for the job they were trained for.

And then of course there is the challenge of retaining volunteers.  The above described average volunteer will not be around forever, and younger volunteers tend to move on as their lives change (for example by finding a paid job).  Commitment is also an issue, for the more crucial volunteers are to the running of a museum, the more time will be required of them.  People who work, and especially younger people who tend to have young families, are not able to give the amount of time needed for long-term planning and managing for success.

So where does this leave us?  Personally, I don’t think that volunteers are the best people to take on the responsibility for our heritage.  Our heritage is too precious – it requires people who know what they’re doing, people who have the education and the experience to ensure our heritage is protected and kept relevant to the widest possible audience.

We mustn’t confuse volunteering with best practice community and stakeholder engagement.  We, as heritage professionals and especially as interpreters, must absolutely do all in our power to work with communities.  Volunteering is just one way in which to do that, but it is us who need to manage the volunteers, for example, to enable them to contribute in a meaningful way.  By taking away the professional, paid staff, the Government takes away the enabling structure.  No one in their right mind would ever suggest that we replace Mr Cameron with a volunteer, who runs the country in their spare time after, say, having worked in a garage.  It’s just not possible.  The responsibility is too great, as are the consequences of failure.

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The latest issue of the UK Museums Journal gives plenty of evidence of the impact budget cuts have on the museums and heritage sector.  English Heritage is about to shut down its entire (!) outreach department, the Victoria and Albert Museum has downgraded its post of Director of Learning and Interpretation to Head of Education (the sheer terminology of which representing a step backward), and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, whose functions are soon to be taken over by the Arts Council England, has served several museum development officers with risk of redundancy notices, thus jeopardising the forward development of many museums who might benefit from their support.

Of course, the fabric of the heritage, be it objects in museums or Britain’s famed castles, will still be preserved.  But without interpretation, without outreach and ongoing support for visitor programmes, who will care?

These cuts in the heritage sector go against everything that heritage legislation and recent policies have stipulated and recognised.  Even if we put aside that heritage is supposed to enhance our sense of identity (1990 ICOMOS Lausanne Charter) and help us lead balanced and complete lives (1975 European Charter of the Architectural Heritage), ensuring that people understand the importance of protecting our heritage is also called upon as an intrinsic part of gaining people’s support.

If the sector is no longer able to help people make a connection to their heritage, who will care about a museum stuffed full of objects?  Who will care about the pile of old stones on top of the hill?  Heritage is not in the fabric of things, it is in the hearts and minds of people.  And with these cuts, we are just about to wipe that heritage out.

I do know that every sector is worthy of support, and I know that the government and local councils are having to make tough decisions.  But to jeopardise our sense of heritage in my opinion is the worst that can happen.  We may not yet have enough hard evidence to prove what every interpreter and heritage manager knows in their hearts to be true but that doesn’t change my conviction: heritage does provide us with a sense of orientation, as the American legislation that created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 says.  Heritage does tell us about our own roots and that of humanity as a whole, and it provides us with inspiration and aspiration.  If we’re cut off from that, what could possibly replace it?  Not the sheer presence of stones on a hill, I’m sure.

We need people to interact with people.  We need people who understand stakeholders and visitors and who have the know-how to connect them with a site’s many meanings.  Conserving and preserving isn’t enough.  Just imagine how quickly we throw things out when clearing out our house.  It’s when we hold that book in our hands and remember where we bought it and how a loved one read it out to us in the store that the book turns from mere object to a part of who we are.  Without interpretation and programming and outreach we deny people to learn about that part of themselves.  And in turn, they may just no longer agree that any money should be spent at all on what looks just like any other old object.  Who cares?

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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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