Dr Haydn Edwards details a new review into museum provision in Wales.
During the past week I have visited two remarkable local authority museums – Oriel Ynys Môn in Rhosmeirch and the Llanberis Quarry Hospital Museum. The former has an art collection of international significance and the latter provides a vivid account of a pre-NHS industrial hospital in a slate quarrying area. Both these museums have been established by local authorities – Ynys Môn and Gwynedd – and provide an important service to the local and wider communities.
Local authorities in Wales directly manage or provide core funding for 44 museums in Wales. These employ over 250 staff, are visited by around 2 million people annually and have a revenue expenditure of over £9 million. This network of museums is part of a wider cultural sector, which includes Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cadw, National Trust and independent museums. All of them are important components of our cultural and educational life. They contribute to the economy through their role in tourism and to the well-being of our communities. Most of these museums were established in the “golden age” of the 1970s and 80s.
Today is a different era with financial pressures forcing the public sector to prioritise and develop innovative methods of service provision. How are local authority museums dealing with these pressures and are there models of service delivery to maximize the opportunities for collaboration, partnership and innovation? These were the central questions in the mind of the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Welsh Government when I was invited to chair an expert group to review options. Adrian Babbidge, Professor Gaynor Kavanagh and Peter Gomer were also invited to serve. Following six months work of reading, listening, attending meetings, visiting museums, researching and collecting data, evaluating, debating and writing, the work was completed in the early summer and a report presented to the Deputy Minister.
The evidence we received showed that some museums are proactive and resourceful organisations with clear objectives and make the most of opportunities, especially when external funding can be secured. Other museums were found to be disappointing and the faults included the lack of basic housekeeping, rudimentary exhibition standards, minimal educational provision and other weaknesses. This analysis led us to present quality standards for the sector and we hope that these will be developed further and that the sector will take ownership.
We also considered the options available to arrest and reverse what were seen as deep-rooted problems and a general decline. It was evident in many instances that the wealth of collections relating to Wales and the world and collected in the name of the people of Wales are at risk. The recommendations therefore had to be radical and strategic.
The report’s recommendations include:
Establishing a national Museum Council to provide collective leadership across the sector and support for museums
The formation of three regional bodies led by the Welsh Government and the Welsh Local Government Association, to provide operational direction, management and other support for locally delivered museums.
Setting out standards for public museums in a Charter in order to improve the sector and measure progress.
The establishment of Collections Wales to rationalise, safeguard and develop significant collections.
Other recommendations deal with reviewing the charging policy of museums, relief on national non-domestic rates and the establishment of a Transformation Fund to facilitate the major changes required in the museum sector. Without this additional Fund, the sector will continue to decline.
Another key recommendation deals with the review of museum services by local authorities. This work, given the state of the sector, cannot wait until local authority reconfiguration in a few years. The options for change available to local authorities are presented and deal with retention of the service, transfer of their museums to another entity or closures with collections de-accessioned ethically.
After reviewing and analysing a significant body of evidence on the history and current configurations of local museums we have made what we consider to be far-reaching recommendations for change. These are based not just on the understanding of the need to engage with difficult priorities facing local government funding, central as these have been to our thinking.
The recommendations are also informed by perceptions of what the local museum sector in Wales both could and should be delivering.
Transformation is possible and the people of Wales deserve nothing less. Museums should be proactive, visible, credible and astutely run with a good business sense and an informed understanding of audience. Museums also should be seen, held and resourced as places where local communities are able to connect with the richness, complexity and contradictions of life throughout Wales.