Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 17 January 2008

Transfer of the Functions of the Northern Ireland Museums Council to Local Government

17 January 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Ms Alison McQueen ) Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Mr Colin Watson )
Mr Chris Bailey ) Northern Ireland Museums Council
Mr Lexie Scott )

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

We move on to a departmental briefing on the transfer of the functions of the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) from central Government to local government, and we are joined by Alison McQueen and Colin Watson. You are both very welcome, and thank you for your patience. Today’s meeting is running behind schedule, and you were allotted an earlier slot.

Mr Colin Watson (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):

To put the issue in context, I will tell the Committee about the Department’s involvement with museums. The NIMC is one of four or five bodies that are funded by the Department, which is responsible for the national museums and galleries in Northern Ireland: Armagh Observatory and Armagh Planetarium, NIMC, W5 at the Odyssey, and we fund a couple of other smaller bodies.

NIMC is a small body that the Department treats as a non-departmental public body (NDPB). It has a staff of five or six, a board of directors and a membership. Its annual income comes mainly from DCAL and membership fees. DCAL provides funding of roughly £280,000 a year, and membership fees bring in £9,000 a year.

NIMC’s main objectives, as I am sure its chairman and chief executive will outline, are to improve: the standard of collections care in museums; the quality and range of public services in museums, and the standing of museums. It also promotes a coherent framework of museum and museum-related provision in Northern Ireland. NIMC meets its objectives by providing an advocacy service on behalf of local museums, delivering training programmes to museum professionals, providing advice and guidance on collections care and devising programmes to enhance the marketing of museums.

NIMC provides a small grants programme of between roughly £50,000 and £60,000 and is responsible for the accreditation of local and voluntary museums in Northern Ireland. The review of public administration (RPA) decided that the functions of the NIMC should transfer from central Government to local government, and the Department was asked to facilitate that by examining ways in which that could be done.

Our view is that not all the functions that NIMC provide would sit comfortably under local authority control. For example, the accreditation of museums should be undertaken independently — although that would need to be tested. The Department is examining the options for where NIMC’s functions would best sit.

We had considered the possibility of treating the transfer of functions as an integral part of the development of a museums policy for Northern Ireland, which had been under consideration by the Department. We had taken forward the development of such a process as far as producing draft terms of reference and taking on board the views of the main stakeholders, such as NIMC and National Museums Northern Ireland.

However, policy development processes are labour intensive, and they rightly entail major public and stakeholder consultation exercises to ensure that the outcomes are acceptable to everyone and meet the needs for which the policy was developed. In the light of current limitations on resources, the development of a museums policy is not high on the Department’s priority list because it has a range of higher short-term priorities.

To facilitate the RPA decision, the Department is considering alternative approaches to reviewing the functions of the NIMC. Last year, at a meeting with the Minister, NIMC suggested an alternative approach to the development of a museums policy that would be less labour intensive and require fewer resources. The Minister asked the Northern Ireland Museums Council to provide him with a paper detailing its proposed approach. The Department has received that paper, and we are studying it in line with best practice and policy development to find out how it could help to move forward the implementation of the RPA decision in a reasonable time frame.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. Alison, have you anything to add to that?

Ms Alison McQueen (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):

No.

Mr McCausland:

I am glad that the Department is working with the Northern Ireland Museums Council to develop a museums policy. Is there a policy in place at the moment?

Mr Watson:

The policy for museums provision in Northern Ireland is largely as set down in various legal agreements under which we have provided funding, such as the Museums and Galleries ( Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

Mr McCausland:

Those are the legal frameworks. Is there a policy in place in the same way as the Sports Council has a policy document outlining its vision, resources, and so on? Is there a policy currently in place for museums in Northern Ireland, and, if not, why not?

Mr Watson:

No, there is not. As far as I am aware, there is no coherent strategy that encompasses the whole of museum provision in Northern Ireland. One assumes that the various councils have their own policies for local museums provision. The Department works very much on the legislative framework. The majority of our funding goes towards the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland.

Mr McCausland:

Most people would find it incredible, frightening and appalling that a Department in Northern Ireland that has responsibility for museums, which is such a major sector for cultural tourism, local heritage, and so on, has not had a policy for museums in all these years. It is a damning indictment.

The Chairperson:

There are no further questions. Alison and Colin, thank you for your attendance today.

I welcome now the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Museums Council, Chris Bailey, and its chairperson, Lexie Scott. They will brief the Committee on the transfer of the functions.

Mr Lexie Scott (Northern Ireland Museums Council):

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make a presentation to the Committee. I wish to express my personal appreciation to the Committee. I was surprised to hear that this is only the second hardest-working Committee. I sat in on your work this morning, and it strikes me that this is a very hard-working Committee.

Essentially, our premise is that the decision in the review of public administration is running ahead of itself. The Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) has a vital role to play in the development of the museums policy. Unfortunately, the timescale for that appears to be running contrary to that which is proposed in the RPA. That must be addressed. Chris will provide the meat to the bones of that, and we hope to answer any questions that there may be.

Mr Chris Bailey (Northern Ireland Museums Council):

I will be brief. Thank you for the opportunity to give a presentation to the Committee on some of the issues facing the Northern Ireland Museums Council.

The family of museums in Northern Ireland is divided into two parts. There are the national museums, which are the four museums under the National Museums Northern Ireland, governed under the Museums and Galleries ( Northern Ireland) Order 1998. Then there are 34 local museums, and the Northern Ireland Museums Council is the umbrella body for that. Approximately one half of those museums are run by local authorities, and the other half are run by independent and voluntary organisations. Our membership comprises not only museums, but other organisations and individuals who subscribe and are interested in our work. Our membership grew by 5% last year.

The unique responsibility of the NIMC is to oversee the accreditation scheme — a quality standards scheme for museums — which is the bedrock for everything that we do. Our development work is geared towards enabling us to assist museums to meet that standard. That standard allows us to benchmark progress in the sector, and it gives the public confidence that the museums are looking after our collective heritage at the appropriate standard. The accreditation scheme to which the NIMC subscribes is looked after by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and we are the Northern Ireland administrators of that. The scheme has been the envy of many jurisdictions, and it has been adopted throughout the world. My staff are assisting the Heritage Council in the Republic of Ireland to institute a similar scheme there.

As the departmental officials stated, our work falls into five categories. We provide advice and information on anything from how to set up a community museum to what to do with granny’s christening shawl, what to do with the children on a Saturday or how to institute the SPECTRUM documentation standards. We also provide training, and we have trained about 45% of the museum staff over the past three years. We also provide grant assistance. Furthermore, we provide the main research and intelligence base, and, before Christmas, the Minister launched two of our documents, one that maps the trends of institutions and one containing a survey of the museum collections in Northern Ireland. Copies of those are on their way to the Committee.

We also act as a clearing house and a supporter of museums, and we go out and raise money on behalf of museums. For instance, we co-ordinate with the Big Lottery Fund and raise money towards enabling our museums to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, deal with cultural diversity or conduct a cross-border training programme.

Under the review of public administration, it was proposed that our functions be transferred to local authorities. In the light of that, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure said, when that was announced in 2006, that it will cease funding the NIMC in April 2008 and that it will devise a museums policy. To that end, draft terms of reference were drawn up by December 2006. We wrote to the Minister urging him to pursue the museums policy. In a letter dated July 2007, the Minister said that he was content for his Department to continue funding NIMC until March 2009 and that he had asked officials to look at how best to provide efficient and effective support structures for museums in Northern Ireland, either in the development of a museums policy or as a stand-alone exercise.

In September 2007, the NIMC chairman and I met the Minister to explore the issues arising from the current position, and he invited us to prepare a paper on those issues. We delivered that paper to him just before Christmas. The Minister referred to that paper in his response to a question for written answer from the Deputy Chairperson of this Committee dated 14 December 2007.

Setting aside the difficulties of trying to run an organisation that has a Damoclean sword hanging over it, the proposals from the review of public administration and the timescales involved raise serious issues for the NIMC, the museums that we serve and the public that they serve. The RPA proposes a structural approach to the transfer of our functions. We are not aware of any substantive research that has established the validity of that course of action. The immediate question that one should ask, therefore, is why would one embark upon a course of action without carrying out an assessment of its consequences. It may cost less or it may cost more than the existing support structures, or it may prove beneficial or detrimental to the museums and the protection of our patrimony. We do not know.

Things must be done in the right order. The Committee has already heard a previous witness say that form should follow function. We subscribe to that notion, so let us do the necessary research, establish the vision for what we want to achieve and put the necessary structures in place that will best achieve that. As it stands, the RPA proposal will see a change to the existing structures, regardless of the consequences.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure needs to embark upon the whole policy development process. In that context, that is where we can establish a sound and challenging vision for what museums can contribute to society over the next 10 to 12 years.

NIMC is concerned with the methodology proposed through the engagement of consultants and the costs associated with that. The policy will not be delivered in the timescale of two years.

Our paper to the Minister set out what we understand to be the necessary steps towards the establishment of a museum development policy, and there has to be a development process. We are suggesting that, rather than incur the expense of engaging external consultants, the Department should utilise the resources that it has at its disposal in the National Museums Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Museums Council and draw up a working group that can look at the critical elements of developing the museums policy over the next six months. Such an approach would mirror the one that has been adopted in England, where the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has charged the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council — our equivalent body — with devising and admitting a strategy for the museums there, and work is currently ongoing on that.

Finally, I will highlight some of the issues with regard to timescales. The museum development policy may establish that the best way forward on the work currently being undertaken by NIMC is best left to the local councils. However, it seems unlikely that those councils will be in place until 2011. What then happens between when our fund ceases in 2009 and 2011? What we ask the Committee to do is to substantiate support for the development of a museums policy as quickly as possible in order to get us out of the dilemmas that are associated with the current state of play. We advocate that the best method of doing that is to allow the museum professionals to do some of the number crunching, the research and basic work on that policy.

I thank Committee members for their time, and I am happy to answer any questions that they may have.

Mr McCausland:

This is not so much a question as a proposal and comment.

I welcome the presentation, because, when you listen to what was said, and read the documentation, it is clear that the Northern Ireland Museums Council provides a good service and gives value for money. I welcome particularly its proposal to address the policy vacuum by using the expertise that is in the National Museums Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Museums Council. I propose that we, as a Committee, write to the Minister to say that we welcome that proposal and that we think that it is the best way forward, rather than bringing in a consultancy firm that charges a fortune, takes two years and then tells you what you knew in the first place.

The Chairperson:

I will ask you to return to that at the conclusion of the presentation.

Mr P Ramsey:

This is a subject matter that we are not all familiar with, although we have, of course, museums in our local areas. Is there any reason why the position paper that you presented to the Minister cannot be forwarded to Committee members?

Mr Bailey:

No. I can certainly give you a rundown now of the recommendations that we have made, but I can let you have a copy of the paper.

Mr P Ramsey:

Speaking as someone from the Derry area and an elected representative for the constituency of Foyle, I would like to know what my constituents are getting from your council.

The Chairperson:

That is a good west-of-the-Bann, constituency-orientated point. [Laughter.]

Mr P Ramsey:

The fact that there is no development policy in place — the point that Nelson raised earlier — concerns me. The Museums Council has been in existence for 15 years, so why are you only now considering a policy? Is it the mere fact that the RPA is kicking in that is forcing you to defend yourselves and appear to be trying to do the right thing? I am trying to be objective, but at the same time, it is clear that a strategy, a development plan and good thinking in terms of aims and objectives are needed for any part of Government. In the absence of that, can you give me an example of the overseeing and accreditation scheme?

Mr Bailey:

First, I will address what a local museum would get from our services. If a museum reaches accreditation standard then it is eligible for grant assistance from us, which comes in four particular areas. First, we provide funding to enhance the care of its collections — for example, we have given the Tower Museum money towards the purchase of environmental-monitoring equipment, which we also did for the Foyle Valley Railway Museum when it was open. Secondly, we give money to enhance access to the collections, an example of which is the money we have given Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service towards various publications. Thirdly, we assist museums with the purchase of objects, although I am struggling to think of a major object with regard to Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service. The fourth area is to provide training to help members of staff enhance their skills.

We concur that there is a desperate need to put a policy in place, which would establish a vision. We could then roll out and establish strategies. That is nothing new to us: we were established in 1993 and first pressed for a regional development policy because it was not sustainable to have museums all over the place. That led to the previous Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure commissioning the local museum and heritage review in 1999, which continued for four years before there were any outstanding documents. However, there was no evident delivery on that so we are now pushing for a policy, particularly in the context of the review of public administration and, apart from that the desperate need for one. Therefore, it is not something that we have approached lightly or recently.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you for your presentation. I subscribe to Nelson’s view that there is no reason to change something that works well.

Does the NIMC have significant historical artefacts stored away that are not used for presentations or exhibitions? I know that that is not under your remit, but it has been on my mind for quite a while. I have been told that the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum have an Aladdin’s cave where almost everything of historical importance is stored away. Does the NIMC do the same, and if so why are there not exhibitions to show what it has? Many people, including myself, would visit if there were.

Mr Brolly:

I agree with Chris that the RPA seems to be doing this because that is what it does. The Northern Ireland Museums Council should be kept. The consultants who review the work of the NIMC and plan future policies and strategies would have to ask Chris and Lexie for that information, before ploughing it back. We can get that first hand and have a more hands-on relationship with the NIMC. I recommend that the Committee should reject the proposal and stand by the NIMC.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you for the succinct presentation — if Lexie wants some career advice, I suggest that he becomes a school teacher some time in the future.

Mr Brolly:

I would not advise that.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you for the presentation — you came right to the point, and it has been very helpful for the Committee to hear that. There will probably be agreement for the course of action that we are going to take. When the role of a museum was mentioned, I waited to hear — but did not — about the tourist potential.

We raised that matter with the witnesses at an earlier session of today’s Committee meeting with regard to libraries. A wonderful opportunity is presented here, and there is a potential for tourism. You are on the ground; you know what is there; you know what is available; and you know what is needed. If that could be factored into the discussions that, I hope, you will have on our behalf at some point in the future, I would be grateful to you for doing that.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps you could help me get the horse-drawn tram back to Fintona at some time.

Mr Bailey:

I will take the points in the order in which they were raised. Mr Shannon, we are not a museum. We do not hold artefacts. However, we encourage our member museums to provide access to them, as much as possible. Those museums do so, to a considerable extent, through the exhibitions that they put on and through the touring exhibitions that they engender.

One of the key aspects that we would like to have built in — perhaps, as one of the strategies — is the enhanced use of ICT and the digitisation of artefacts. In that way, there would be some access by another means, if it were not through seeing the actual object. Having said that, I think that there is an easy way of gaining access to a museum’s artefacts. You can go to the curator and ask to see a particular artefact. You would find that the curator would be amenable, as are the curators with whom I work. The new museum in Carrickfergus has developed the open-store mechanism whereby the work that is not currently on display is more easily accessible.

With regard to the points that Mr Brolly made about information and intelligence, the two pieces of research that we have just completed provide the bedrock on which we can look at emerging trends, and by which we can establish how many, with whom and where. That will provide the fundamental information on which policy and strategy is based.

With regard to tourism, the ‘Mapping Trends in Northern Ireland’s Museums’ document — which was one of the pieces of research that we did — was a repeat of an exercise that we undertook five years ago. Over those five years we found a considerable increase in the number of people who go to our museums; the number rose by 21%. Nearly one million people each year go to our museums. We discovered that approximately 28% of those people could be termed “tourists”. We extended that piece of research, through a partnership with the heritage lottery fund, approximately three years ago, to establish what that meant to Northern Ireland’s economy. Therefore, we can extrapolate a lot further as to the impact of tourism on museums.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is considerable potential in the further marketing of museums, generally, and, in particular, into the European market. We should ensure that the tourists who come here do what I, and many of my colleagues, do when I go to a foreign country — I orientate myself about the culture and heritage of a new place by going to its museums. Therefore, we need to have local museums working on all four cylinders.

The Chairperson:

I thank Chris Bailey and Lexie Scott for attending the meeting and engaging with us in the way that they have.

Mr Scott:

Thank you, Chairman. I will go back to school now and see if there is still a job for me.

The Chairperson:

We need to conclude this item of business. Nelson has already made a proposal. Francie, do you wish to make a proposal?

Mr Brolly:

I propose that the status quo is maintained, that the NIMC continues to control the museums system and that we should not countenance the bringing in of expensive consultants to tell the NIMC what it already knows and is quite willing to pass on to the Committee.

The Chairperson:

Do you want us to write to the Minister to express our views in support of the Museums Council?

Mr Brolly:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

Does that meet with the agreement of members?

Members indicated assent.

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