This year’s Museums Association Conference, which took place at the Birmingham ICC in November, is the largest get-together of its kind in the UK. With a firm focus on the domestic musuems sector, it is an essential event in the diary for those involved in the museum and heritage industry, acting as a bellwether for UK museums. And on size alone, the MA Conference 2015 demonstrated that the sector is healthy, if not booming. Delegate numbers increased by more that 40 per cent to approximately 1,700, up from 1,200 at the 2014 conference, and the number of commercial stands in the exhibition hall was up 15 per cent year on year. Some of this may be down to location – Birmingham is perfectly situated for access and the cultural vibrancy of the city certainly played its part in attracting delegates. But perhaps there was a real feeling of – whisper it – hope, if not optimism, which could not be put down to setting alone.
We’ve never had it so good. Or have we?
“Let’s stop complaining,” was the advice from the V&A Martin Roth, in the director’s round-table conversation to conference, playing devil’s advocate and challenging the prevailing view of some in the industry to see their glass as half full. Yet given the UK government’s impending comprehensive spending review, much of the discussion – in the main hall and beyond – inevitably revolved around predictions on the size and depth of the government cuts to come. The debut keynote from Peter Luff, recently arrived head of Heritage Lottery Fund, attempted to address some of these concerns with a range of new measures to support heritage organisations. HLF has long been an essential element in large-scale improvement projects, enabling fantastic cultural institutions to invest for the future. Let’s hope its plans to encourage more young people to engage with museums will have a similiar transformative effect.

The silver bullet – internationalism
From our position next to the Museums Practice Workshop room 2 in the exhibition hall, it was clear that the message of internationalism – or more specifically UK soft power overseas – was reaching every corner of the conference. UKTI hosted an international reception in conjunction with the Museums Association, with their eye on strategic partnerships and international working in the US. In the main hall, the directors’ round-table discussion touched on the subject. When David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool and current MA president, was asked: “What one thing would you change about museums today?”, he replied: “Make UK museums more international in outlook.” Meanwhile, the opening MP Workshop in Room 2, ‘The Economics of Touring Exhibitions: Models for Practice’, attracted a large and attentive crowd. Among the very solid practical advice, once comment stood out: the advice of Touring Exhibitions Group‘s Charlotte Dew that “touring internationally can be much more sustainable” from an economic position than its domestic equivalent. Although nothing new, with a government focus on export and trade ties beyond Europe, could internationalism really be the silver bullet the museums industry is looking for to fill gaps in its finances?

An eye on museum storage

Back on the stand, we met a number of new and existing clients, including a clutch of delegates with a stakeholding in the exciting cultural centre development at the Kelvin Hall – funded in part by Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland. A former exhibition hall which played host to sports events and the transport museum, Kelvin Hall is currently being converted to be a joint home for the museum stores of Glasgow Museums, and a brand new collections and study centre for the Hunterian. In addition, National Libraries Scotland will house its screen archive in the refurbished building, and Glasgow Sport will take over the remaining space for leisure use. Some of the stores at Kelvin Hall will be accessible to the public, in a similar way to the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre archives, where public tours take place daily. While Jane Rowlands of Glasgow Museums and Malcolm Chapman of the Hunterian were comparing notes on the practicalities of sharing an archive space, David Gaimster, director of the Hunterian, was looking forward to the official launch party for their section of the project. The Kelvin Hall development will allow the University of Glasgow to build on its international reputation for collections-based research and teaching, allowing much greater access to collections. Slated for September 2016, the development’s opening will come just in time for the Museums Association’s next conference which – you’ve guessed it – takes place in Glasgow. With the ground floor works well progressed, Glasgow Museums will certainly be ahead in the race to get into the building. Work on the first floor, housing the Hunterian collection, begins in earnest in the next few weeks. Alongside the forthcoming new stores for Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, this is one of the largest and most ambitious museum projects Bruynzeel has supplied in recent years and personally I can’t wait to see the results. Finally, thanks to Tehmina Goskar from NMMC, a regular visitor, who pointed out the perils of storing boats – something the maritime museum in Cornwall knows a lot about. She pointed out the problem of putting a slatted wooden boat in a climate controlled store: As a boat requires the natural moisture in the air – flexing and breathing with changes in the atmosphere – you could end up with a boat quite literally coming apart at the seams!

Last word
Driving home from Birmingham on the Friday evening, 6 November, I caught a piece about museum ethics on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, introduced by Kirsty Lang. The discussion was pegged to Shell’s sponsorship the Science Museum’s climate science gallery, and to the Museums Association Conference – in particular MA president David Fleming’s advice to conference that museums will need to be a little more choosy about who they take money from in future. “As public expenditure reduces … we become more reliant on private sector sponsorship,” he pointed out. “There needs to be clarity on what is expected from both sides.” “But who decides what is ethical?” Kirsty asked. “Publicly funded organisations need to be clear what they stand for. We’re talking about transparency and accountability… we’re looking for best practice and morality. That’s what ethics is all about. If the public decides that something dodgy is going on, that’s probably because of unethical behaviour.”

In the light of this discussion, it’s no surprise to see UK museum professionals – and MA and UKTI too – looking to the US for inspiration and models of best practice. As Julie Hart of the American Alliance of Museums told me at conference, a situation with very limited public sector funding has long been the case in the US. As a result, American museums and institutions have had many years of experience developing ethical business models to cope with diverse income streams, including corporate sponsors. But with public funding for museums continuing to be pared back in the UK, can museums afford to be choosy about where they get their money? “They have to be choosy about what strings are attached,” David Fleming told Radio 4. “There’s got to be clarity and there’s got to be honesty and it has to be very obvious who is responsible for the story telling…” There was, of course a whole lot more of value that went on at this year’s conference. For example, I couldn’t make the discussion about University partnerships, chaired by London Museums Group’s Judy Willcocks, and the session on rebuilding the civic contract between museums and the public with Ellen McAdam of Birmingham Museums Trust – both of which looked like lively debates. For an in-depth round-up of conference, this excellent blog post from the team at University of Cambridge Museums is a great place to continue reading. For our part, we’re happy to start planning for next year’s MA Conference. See you in Glasgow!