Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Thursday, 29 May 2008

Museums Policy

29 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Chris Bailey Northern Ireland Museums Council

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome Mr Chris Bailey, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC). I refer members to the correspondence previously received by email on 29 April from Mr Bailey, which details issues for discussion regarding the development of a museums policy. This matter has provoked great interest among Committee members. Also tabled is a paper entitled ‘Towards a Northern Ireland Museums Development Policy’, which the Museums Council previously forwarded to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I will now hand over to Mr Bailey to make his presentation.

Mr Chris Bailey (Northern Ireland Museums Council):
I will use 10 minutes to give the Committee some contextual information, after which I will be happy to answer questions. Before I do so, however, I pass on the apologies of the council’s chairman, Mr Lexie Scott, who cannot attend this morning because of family commitments.

When Mr Scott and I last appeared before the Committee in January 2008, we stressed the need for a museums development policy, and we told members about the difficult position in which the Northern Ireland Museums Council finds itself as a consequence of the review of public administration (RPA) decision that envisages the transfer of the council’s functions. Since then, we have noted that the Committee has moved quickly, and that not only has it discussed the matter on several occasions, but it has instigated a short inquiry. We are aware of the notice of that inquiry in this week’s newspapers and the wonderfully challenging deadline that has been set. We look forward to participating in that inquiry.

The Chairperson:
We do not hang about, Chris, you know that.

Mr Bailey:
I am assured that that fact is commonly understood.

During the course of this short presentation, I will touch on various matters, which, I hope, will prove useful pointers to what we perceive to be the key elements of the policy, and, perhaps, will form key elements of the Committee’s inquiry. I will add some flesh to the bones of the matter, as set out in the paper that we presented to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and which was circulated to members following our previous visit.

The first issue that we stressed in that paper was the need to establish the scope of the policy from the outset. We needed an answer to the question, “what is this policy concerned with?” We have, thankfully, a commonly accepted definition of a museum. Indeed, it appears at the top of the paper:

“Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens which they hold in trust for society.”

Encapsulated in that definition are the two mutually dependent parts of a unique equation that makes a museum, namely, people and collections. No other institution, organisation or sector possesses that equation.

Museums, without visitors and users, are storehouses with very little purpose. Without access to the objects of our past, people would be bereft of the opportunity to interrogate the actual artefacts — which are the objective evidence of our past — and all the benefits associated with them. Without access to such objects, our history remains second-hand.

This definition, composed by the Museums Association and tweaked to its current form in 1998, is used as the basis for the accreditation standard — something that I have talked about previously to many of the Committee members. This is the quality mark, the nationally agreed standard scheme for museums in the UK, with a similar scheme now emerging in the Republic of Ireland.

To qualify for this standard, museums must meet clear basic requirements as to how they care for and document their collections and how they are governed and managed. Museums must also provide evidence that they meet certain basic requirements on the information and services offered to their users. Therefore, it covers the whole gamut of how one operates a museum.

The standard scheme benefits both the museum visitors and users, and supports the museum managers as they know what needs to be done. Furthermore, it supports the museums’ governing bodies through the planning and development of their services, and provides a very useful benchmark for grant-aiding organisations such as ours and for sponsors and donors, as no other part of the cultural sector has such a standard.

In order to qualify for grant assistance from the council — that is from the public purse — local museums must meet this accreditation standard. However, not all important local collections of Northern Ireland’s heritage reside in museums and many of those other collections do receive support from public funds. Therefore, part of our heritage asset is protected by a respected standards scheme, while other important collections are without the guidance and focus offered by the accreditation standard. I would suggest that this might be one of the issues that needs to be addressed within the museums development policy. We must ensure that the other important aspects of our heritage held within the public sector are cared for in the same fashion as they are in our museums.

That issue was examined — to a certain degree — by the local museum and heritage review. That review — as the Committee will recall — was instigated in 1999 by the previous Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Michael McGimpsey, with a view to:

“strengthen the arrangements for the preservation, interpretation, promotion and educational use of heritage in Northern Ireland”.

The council was disappointed that the recommendations of that review were not followed through to any great degree. However, the study did raise some salient points, and I believe that its process offers valuable lessons as we begin work on devising a museums policy — not least in avoiding the pitfalls of embracing too broad a scope. That is the reason for my emphasis on focusing solely on museums. I also believe that we should avoid an over-emphasis on the support structures in the first instance, rather than deciding what needs to be done and then assessing the means of delivery. This is the second point that we stressed to the Minister in our paper, and the council would ask that the Committee keeps this in mind during future deliberations.

Returning to the definition of a museum — but also within the scope of the local museum and heritage review — the council suggests that the vision for building museums for the future is underpinned by four strategic pillars. These four pillars are: collections development; infrastructure and staffing; education and learning; and visitor services and marketing. Obviously, in the context of this meeting, I am not going to go into any of these in great detail. However, I would like to identify some of the salient points.

On collections development, for example, the Northern Ireland Museums Council would ask how collections are being managed. What must be done to ensure that the appropriate environmental, housekeeping, documentation, storage and security arrangements are in place? What is being collected? Are there aspects of our heritage that need to be collected? Is the necessary research and expertise available to do that? The survey of museum collections in Northern Ireland — which we compiled and the Minister launched just before Christmas — provides valuable baseline information about what is contained in our museums. It also outlines steps towards devising a collections development strategy.

The infrastructure and staffing pillar concerns the buildings, services and people needed to develop the policy. The mapping exercise that the Northern Ireland Museums Council launched last year does a fair amount of work in that regard by assessing what is in place. This is a period of unprecedented capital investment: we estimate that at least £40 million is being invested in our museums for newbuild and renovation.

Our research suggests that — in order to cope with the enhanced level of expectation and the increasing number of visitors — we now need to invest in the people who will work in the new museums. We must ensure that the new facilities have an appropriate complement of suitably trained staff to deliver the service requirement and to develop an enhanced level of research, exhibitions and events. Our rolling training programme does that. Indeed, there are two such training courses in progress at the moment. Later in the summer, we will conduct a survey of the people who work in our museums, to ascertain their various strengths and weaknesses. That should provide a basis for the visitor services and marketing pillar.

Later in 2008, the Northern Ireland Museums Council will publish the results of its audit and review of education and learning in the 37 accredited museums. It is anticipated that that will lead to the establishment of a learning framework for museums in Northern Ireland.

In 1821, eight men — all younger than 26 — met at the home of Dr James Drummond in Belfast and established the Belfast Natural History Society. Over the next eight years, they collected various items and established a museum. Financed by subscriptions and donations, they took out a lease on a building in College Square North in Belfast — now known as the Old Museum Arts Centre — and opened it as our first museum in 1831. The motivation of those founders was educational: the museum’s purpose was to enhance, inspire and edify. The contemporary definition of museums indicates that that focus has not changed.

Museums have a considerable opportunity to serve society by building up their potential as centres for actual and virtual learning. The new curriculum offers much greater flexibility on how museums can use collections and provide an unprecedented resource for adult education, informal learning and higher and further education.

Evidence suggests that the founders of the Belfast museum were also concerned with attracting as many people as possible to their venue — in much the same way as their modern counterparts are. On establishment, the museum was really only visited by members of the Belfast Natural History Society, researchers, scholars and friends. However, in May 1837, it opened six days a week to the public and attracted a reasonable number of people. The museum was advertised on posters on the steam package vessels that sailed daily between Donaghadee and Belfast, bringing workers to the city. However, their marketing really paid off on Easter Monday 1845 when the museum was opened to the general public and mechanicals — that is, they wanted to attract the working class and the C2Ds that contemporary museums are all chasing.

On that day, almost 1,000 people turned up at the museum, and, to quote a wonderful recollection of the event, members will be pleased to hear:

“The utmost decorum and quietness was observed, and no object in the collection was damaged”.

Marketing, particularly promotion, should be the sector’s main concern and a principal strategic focus of this museums policy, and, as with the others areas to which I have referred, the council is committed to surveying, in the coming months, what museums are doing.

One notable success in this area was the national marketing initiatives that National Museums Northern Ireland undertook, which brought about medium- to long-term rewards. Such rewards, especially with regard to tourism, can be unlocked for local museums, too. Like the original Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, however, the bread and butter visitors are local repeat visitors.

Each of the four strategic areas that I have highlighted can be unpicked, analysed and examined in much greater detail. However, this overview will, hopefully, add to the Committee’s deliberations.

A museums policy is necessary for four principal reasons. First, a policy provides a blueprint and the rationale for placing prioritised funding. Secondly, it offers the opportunity to build the cross-departmental and cross-disciplinary relationships with regard to how museums contribute to, for example, education and tourism. Thirdly, a policy provides the blueprint of inter-relationships with other Government agendas; for example, in the Programme for Government. Finally, it offers an opportunity for guidance, leadership and, as is rightly identified in the inquiry’s robust terms of reference, the necessary step towards joined-up thinking across not only the sector but other Government agendas.

I hope that that overview was useful, and I am happy to take any questions.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for a thought-provoking presentation.

Mr Brolly:
With regard to marketing, you said that repeat visitors are the museums’ bread and butter. How difficult is it to persuade someone to make that first visit? There must be tens of thousands of people who have never set foot inside a museum. How do you get to those people?

Mr Bailey:
I am not sure how one gets to the non-attender. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) carried out two pieces of research, the results of which are on the council’s website. The most recent was in 2004, and it is now time to do another one. People were asked why they did not visit museums, and many cited a lack of time and interest. When the research was further examined, and as a result of work done by the council, the physical-access barriers have been virtually eliminated. We are still working on the intellectual-access barriers. The economic-access barriers, meanwhile, are fairly minimal with regard to museums because over two thirds of museums in Northern Ireland have free access. That leaves the social and cultural barriers, on which the council is doing a lot of work.

The museum sector generally, however, is doing something right because there has been a 21% increase in attendance over the past five years to 971,000. That is equivalent to 60% of the population in Northern Ireland, although that figure includes repeat visitors.

That is why we are examining the way in which museums are marketed. One of the key weaknesses in the local museums sector is the absence of joined-up thinking — a lot of the local-authority museums publicise themselves, but there is no on-selling. For example, if I go to Down County Museum and enjoy my visit, there is no sign to tell me the location of other museums.

We do some joined-up marketing through our website and provide visitors — particularly those from overseas — with access to the baseline information on all the museums in Northern Ireland. However, that is a reactive approach rather than a proactive one.

Therefore, doing much of our research on marketing museums would expand and elaborate on the reasons why people do not visit museums. In response to being asked why he did not visit museums, one brutally honest individual said that he was generally apathetic. We must address that general apathy and highlight the pre-eminent rewards of visiting museums.

Lord Browne:
I declare an interest as a director of the Somme Association Northern Ireland, which has a museum at Conlig. On behalf of the directors and staff of the association, I praise NIMC for the invaluable and professional service that it has provided over many years, which we could not do without.

You mentioned the important issues, such as how to maintain a collection, accreditation, staffing and marketing. Those are all difficulties that small museums face, particularly with the economic downturn. You have mentioned all the important points, such as the accreditation of the small museums. I take the opportunity to advertise the Somme Heritage Centre, which has one of the highest throughputs of visitors of museums in Northern Ireland.

The educational role of museums, particularly with schools, is very important. There is a sixth-from conference held each year at the Somme Heritage Centre, which is very well attended and is correlated with the curriculum. I used to be a teacher, but I have no idea what children are taught at schools now — I am totally out of touch.

A museums policy is required. Would there be any benefit in having a site that could house several museums together under one roof with their own displays? Such a scheme could take place in the Titanic Quarter for example and, although they are run differently, include military museums.

Mr Bailey:
You highlighted the Somme Heritage Centre and the sixth-form conference that it holds, which was funded through the ‘Their Past Your Future’ initiative. We funded a second initiative at the Somme Heritage Centre about code breaking, which included a display of an enigma machine and other equipment brought over from Bletchley Park. That event was linked with the curriculum, and there was a record number of attendees, particularly students at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 level. The organisers of that event had the imagination and the energy to link it, not with the history curriculum, but with the mathematics curriculum.

That is indicative of the potential of museums, and highlights — as I emphasised — the breadth of opportunity that the new curriculum offers teachers to use the heritage and history of museums as an automatic part of the equation and to teach natural history and citizenship. We must ensure that museums are well positioned and have the resources to cope with such activities, so that their capacity can be exploited.

The Somme Heritage Centre is an independent museum. Approximately half of local museums are run by local authorities and the other half are run by independent or voluntary bodies.

The decision made in the review of public administration to transfer our functions to local authorities does not take account of the needs of local museums. That part of the equation has not been thought through in the RPA. That is why I advocated being allowed to see what needs to be done and what support structures need to be put in place for museums, after we decide what we want to do and what potential we hope to unlock. If we, as we did with the local museum and heritage review, focus on structures, we miss out on the possibility of those being malleable to what is required.

I recognise that the Committee is pressed for time, so I will move to my final point. I do not think that NIMC can be dictatorial and say that it must have one of those, one of those and one of those. However, we can engineer a museum policy that has a consultation process to address — perhaps under the pillar of collections — what we want to collect and what we want to communicate. That can address not only Northern Ireland’s military history but, perhaps, its maritime and aviation history, too, which are big issues. What are we going to do with the Ulster Aviation Society? What are we going to do with HMS Caroline and SS Nomadic?

It is under that pillar of the strategic support structures that we can begin to address such questions.

Mr P Ramsey:
You are very welcome, Chris. I want to follow on from what Wallace said. From Derry City Council’s perspective, I acknowledge the invaluable working partnership with, and leadership of, NIMC, and how much we have benefited from that.

I am concerned about the latter points that were made about RPA. One particular matter, which I am not sure about, related to the lack of centralised support structures in place for the independent sector. I am referring to the Museum of Free Derry and the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall in the city of Derry, which are two very independent structures that would be lacking under devolved local government.

We know that RPA will be implemented in 2011. However, a question tabled to Minister Poots asked what will happen in the meantime. He said that he would like to see something put in place, but he did not say what. We should ask the Minister about whether he envisages that the Northern Ireland Museums Council will move beyond 2011.

It is important to acknowledge the accreditation standards that the Northern Ireland Museums Council has set as a barometer. Does public expenditure for museums services lag behind in comparison to other regions of the UK and Ireland? Is it the usual nonsense, or is it the same for art and sport?

I assume that £40 million is the total capital spend for Northern Ireland? Is there an indication of the shortfall in resources required to manage that product? It was indicated that additional staff resources and training would be required. I am concerned that local government will not have the capacity, specialist advice and quality of services that the Northern Ireland Museums Council provides. What are local authorities going to do in 2011 without that capacity? We have seen a similar scenario with the Events Company and the difficulties that it experienced with staffing. It is now disappearing back into DCAL. We do not know how that is going to work, but I can see major problems. Will you give us your perspective on that?

Mr Bailey:
In response to Alex Attwood’s question for oral answer on Monday 19 May 2008, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure said:

“My Department is considering that. It would be unacceptable to have a gap in funding between 2009 and 2011. Therefore, if we cannot transfer the Northern Ireland Museums Council’s functions by 2009, it would be logical to continue funding until that transfer takes place.”

That response does not outline conclusively whether funding will be forthcoming. That still causes us difficulty from an executive point of view, because I have been told that we will not receive funding after 2009. Unless the Minister or the Department confirms that funding will be available, I will, by September 2008, be forced to start winding down the organisation.

That raises a delicate point. We should, perhaps, within the museums policy, consider challenging the automatic assumption that the RPA conclusion is the best way to progress. At the moment, NIMC’s functions will be transferred to local authorities, and, on that basis, funding may continue until 2011. That is the structural argument that I mentioned earlier. We should, perhaps, decide on an appropriate plan and, subsequently, establish the relevant support structures.

The document outlines how capital spend is progressing, but does not necessarily provide a funding breakdown. However, of that £40 million of funding — which includes the national museums — roughly a third derives from the Department, a third from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a third from local authorities.

We cannot evaluate staff shortfall at the moment. Fewer than two weeks ago, the new Mid-Antrim Museum at the Braid was launched officially, and they are assessing — based on visitor numbers and the increased demand for services — what staff complement is required. Therefore, the evaluation of optimum staffing requirements will be an organic process conducted on a venue-by-venue basis. Furthermore, the Newry and Mourne Museum has conducted the same process after its relocation to Bagenal’s Castle.

We will continue, as far as possible, to offer centralised, professional training because that is a key aspect of the role of local authorities. If NIMC’s functions are transferred to local authorities, it is possible that its role will be replicated 11 times across the Province. Given the Committee’s discussion on bureaucracy, I do not consider that a valuable way to progress. We must examine the numerous ways to cut that pie. However, we must first outline the vision, process and targets.

Are we under-funded? Statistics show that spend per capita is much lower here than elsewhere. However, the distribution of that funding is a separate matter, because in Northern Ireland, the Department allocates more than £11 million of Government money to national museums. However, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure allocates £280,000 to local museums through NIMC. Therefore, the differential is large. We could definitely spend much more money; however, I do not know whether that would represent value for money because I am unsure of the Committee’s targets.

If we set out our vision and targets, and if the Department gives us a certain amount to get from a to b, we can do that. We can come back to the Department or the Committee, and they will ask whether it was done and whether there was underspend or overspend, and they can then assess whether it was value for money.

I am sorry that the answer is convoluted and not as direct as members might need, but I hope that it gives some shape to the matter.

Mr Brolly:
I wish to return to the control of museums. The suggestion that they should be moved to local councils seems to be inconsistent with what is being done in the RPA generally. For example, a single education authority will take the place of the various local boards. We are about to bring into statutory existence a single library authority, which will take control of libraries away from the education and library boards. It seems inconsistent that the RPA will take control of museums away from a dedicated central body and give it to local councils. There is an argument against that. I do not know what sort of role local councils can really play, except, possibly, to control funding.

Mr Shannon:
There might be 11 different strategies.

Mr P Ramsey:
There would be no strategic vision.

Mr Brolly:
Just before I finish, is NIMC making any headway on the formation of policy for museums being handed out to independent consultants? Will the Minister allow the Museums Council to formulate the policy? NIMC could send him a bill that would be commensurate that which outside consultants would charge, and that sum could keep NIMC going for several years.

The Chairperson:
That is helpful, Francie. Thank you. [Laughter.]

Mr Bailey:
I will be brief. The key word that Mr Brolly used was “control”. The Museums Council does not control the museums; it is a facilitator or service body, and, hopefully, it will retain some independence. In that respect, it provides a unique service. Perhaps that is part of the confusion about the transfer of functions. The term “transfer of functions” was also used in respect of the rural road network or libraries, where the function was not previously undertaken by local authorities but — as in the case of planning — by central Government.

As far as museums are concerned, under legislation, such as the Recreation and Youth Service ( Northern Ireland) Order 1986 and the Museums and Galleries ( Northern Ireland) Order 1998, local authorities already have the remit to run museums. That is causing some confusion. If they already have that function, what is RPA attempting to transfer? It is attempting to transfer the service requirement that the Museums Council operates.

Independent museums are a different issue. Independent museums will raise their plight, because they feel that if central Government allocates money to a local authority to run museums, the local authority will not be of a mind to devolve that money to an independent museum; it would rather spend it on its own museum.

With regard to control of policy, we do not feel that we are in a fit state to control the development of policy; it is much more a partnership affair. The Museums Council will take on a co-ordinating role, but it needs a stack of other stakeholders, the Committee, the independent museums, the national museums and the local authorities to act as the first focus group.

We have all the intelligence but, quite rightly, the policy process resides with the Department and, though the Minister, the Executive. We need that marriage to take place also. Therefore, I would not take such a direct, linear approach as that which was suggested.

Mr Brolly:
The Committee has made the case for the Museums Council quite vocally. It would be an absolute waste to remove authority from a body that has knowledge and to give it to those who will gain that knowledge by talking to that body. There is no consistency.

Mr Bailey:
There is a danger in that. Having said that, an element of detachment is required, otherwise it may be perceived that we have a vested interest. Placing our research and number-crunching activities in the departmental process would enable it to be viewed in the broader context of what else is happening in Government and what the other priorities are in the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Mr Brolly:
There will be no shortage of scrutiny. You should not worry about that.

Mr Bailey:
That is correct; there should be no shortage.

Mr D Bradley:
Good morning, you are welcome. You mentioned the four pillars, one of which was education and learning. I know that you gave some examples when you were responding to Wallace’s questions. What is your vision for education and learning in relation to museums?

Mr Bailey:
I cannot currently quote chapter and verse because we are still in the midst of conducting a lot of research. We conducted a penetrative audit on what is happening in museums, which considers the formal and informal aspects.

I am convinced that museums have not yet got the capacity to exploit the full potential of education and learning. That is illustrated by the flatlining of the number of schoolchildren who attended museums over the past five years. That is partly due to difficulties with school transport, but it is also due to museums not having rooms available or the necessary staff expertise.

My personal vision is to see museums being able to engender those life-changing experiences that people get from visiting museums. I have witnessed examples of that through people handling the actual objects, for example, Neolithic hand axes. Such experiences can give nine-year-olds, for example, an understanding of previous generations. Another example of getting an understanding of history is Takabuti, the Egyptian mummy, which was one of the first artefacts in the Belfast Natural and Philosophical Society’s museum in 1835.

If members bear with me, I will elaborate on that at a later stage. It is a vital aspect.

Mr D Bradley:
What advice do you give to local museums about continuing to build upon their local collections?

The Chairperson:
That question could also be applied to someone who wants to start up a new museum.

Mr D Bradley:
A huge amount of material is available locally, and a huge amount of people are willing to donate it. Obviously, there is a problem with storage, and museums have to be selective in what they take. Sometimes people can be disappointed that, for example, their grandfather’s correspondence with their granny before they got married was not accepted by a museum. What guidance do you give on such issues?

Mr Bailey:
Museums, under their governance rules, are required to have an acquisition and disposal policy, which states that they will acquire certain items, and it lays out the rationale for that.

Many of the local authority museums acquire items from a geographic area. Other more advanced local authority areas, for example, the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum — which has what could be described as a dual mandate — collect Irish linen, but also items from the locality around Lisburn.

For a lot of the independent museums, for example, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland at Whitehead, such an acquisition and disposal policy will have a specific focus. Alternatively, they may be galvanised by a particular view or period in history, such as the Museum of Free Derry.

The acquisition and disposal policy is the touchstone. When someone asks for their great uncle’s letters to be put in a museum, the museum will consider whether it wants to take them. Museums must be selective. We have identified the extent to which storage is an issue in our research. That could be considered under the collections development pillar.

People approach us on a monthly basis about starting new museums. Not all museums in Northern Ireland are eligible to become accredited, and not all museums choose to go down the accreditation route. That does not mean that we do not service and advise those museums.

Often, members of the public call us to say that they are clearing their house and that they have a collection. Indeed, a woman from Limavady called us last week to say that she had the unfortunate task of clearing her great aunt’s house and wanted to know what to do with the items that she found. Dealing with such queries is part of our public-service role. We have a mechanism in place for starting new museums. However, if someone tells us that they want to start a museum, I am afraid that one of the first things that we tell them is that they need to start a museum like they need a hole in the head. It is an onerous responsibility. Remember, museums are not just for Christmas, they exist in perpetuity.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Chris — that is more food for thought.

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